“This sounds crazy, but Kobe spoke this. He used to say all the time ‘I want to die young. I want to be immortalized. You know, I want to have my career be better than Michael Jordan, and I want to die young.’” Tracy McGrady, seven-time NBA All-Star.
That wish has come true in a myriad of ways since January 26, when Kobe Bryant, 41, and his daughter Gianna, 13, were two of seven people killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, CA. Almost immediately after the news broke, tributes came pouring in via social media from athletes, fans, celebrities and politicians. And the tributes kept coming: At the Oscars, the Grammys, sporting events, television specials—you name it.
But no matter how many tributes, both public and private, have occurred in the past month, none will be bigger than the one occurring at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on February 24, when thousands of friends and (mostly) fans paying tribute to Bryant and his daughter on the Lakers home court.
Is it weird to grieve the loss of a celebrity?
It’s not. It actually has a name: Parasocial relationships, or interactions. Psychologically, these types of relationships are like unrequited love: One person gives their emotions, time, and energy to the other person, but the other person doesn’t know they exist.
Tupac Shakur. Kurt Cobain. Heath Ledger. Whitney Houston. Harry Potter. Tony Stark. Real or fictional people or characters, beloved by their families and the public as well. You turn to them for comfort when real people let you down because they’re always there for you, always accessible. They were part of the soundtrack of your life. And when they die, a little of your innocence goes with them.
Parasocial relationships can happen to anyone, at any age. Gayle Steyer, who has been studying adult parasocial relationships for the past 28 years at SUNY Empire State College in New York, says it’s normal. “We, as a species, are dependent on social interaction to survive,” she said in a 2016 interview, “and there is a part of our brain that can’t differentiate the face in front of [us] in real life with the face on TV.”
The term “parasocial relationship” was first coined by anthropologist Donald Horton and sociologist R. Richard Wohl in a 1956 article titled, “Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance.” At that time, they based their findings on people who had relationships with news anchors and radio hosts. Today, through social media saturation, people can access their obsessions 24/7/365.
In general, these relationships are healthy; our heroes may inspire us to be brave, to change our lives for the better, or aspire to do something we thought was impossible. But for people with existing mental illnesses, this kind of attraction can become real—admiration and worship can grow into obsession, which becomes dangerous (think John Hinckley Jr.’s shooting of President Ronald Regan in 1981 to get Jodie Foster’s attention).
But group mournings, such as the one happening on the 24th, are healthy. Seattle-based therapist and grief counselor Dr, Jill Gross, Psy.D., says it’s important to find a way to share your grief. Online or in person, group mourning gives you a chance to share your feelings with others who feel the same loss; you can talk about how much they meant to you. The most important thing you can do after a loss, Gross says, is “feel your aliveness.” In other words, do something that will allow you to reconnect with your spirit.
If you continue to struggle with grief, however, you may want to seek help from a counselor or psychiatric professional. Loss can sometimes trigger physical and/or mental problems you did not know you had.
Kobe Bryant got both of his wishes: to die young and to be immortal. And on February 24th, his death will be mourned once again.
But to his legions of fans, he will live on forever.
Because legends never die.
Top: Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna
(Photo: ABC News)
Center: Fans mourn at a makeshift memorial outside the Staples Center
(Second photo: NBC News, Third photo, Business Insider)
Bottom: Alicia Keys and Boyz II Men in a tribute to Bryant during the 2020 Grammys (Photo: NY Times)