Why Grief Over Celebrity Deaths Like Anthony Bourdain's Feel So Painful

Photo: Ian West/PA Images/Getty Images.
On Friday, June 8, the world woke up to the tragic news that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain had reportedly died by suicide. The news especially hit hard, not only because Bourdain is so beloved, but also because his death followed on the heels of the news that Kate Spade, another much-loved celebrity, had died by suicide earlier this week.
As people began mourning Bourdain, many started a conversation using #EndTheStigma on Twitter to discuss how we can prevent such devastating deaths in the future.
It's always shocking when celebrities pass away, but Debra Kissen, PhD, a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says that when someone dies by suicide, it's particularly unsettling because it brings something that can seem abstract much closer to home.
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"If you believe you understand this person and yet something like this could happen, [suicide] is no longer this faraway concept," she says.
These deaths can be especially difficult to grapple with if you yourself are living with a mental illness. In the days following Spade's death, Dr. Kissen says she's had patients schedule emergency sessions to discuss anxiety over feelings that if someone like Spade could die by suicide, so could they.
"Some patients, even if they're not actively suicidal, think, I struggle with anxiety, and depression, and I feel bad sometimes, is this something I’m going to do?," she says. "But it’s more complicated than that, and we're all on different paths."
And even if you aren't living with mental health issues yourself and aren't necessarily triggered by these deaths, coping with the death of a beloved celebrity is still hard. In fact, Dr. Kissen points out that in a way, we sometimes spend more moments with these people on an average day than we do with friends or family members — in Bourdain's case, through his TV programs, and in Spade's case, by owning the clothes and accessories she designed — and that makes the loss so palpable.

Acknowledge that this is real, because you felt a connection to them. Even if it’s just a minute or 30 seconds...

Debra Kissen, PhD
"As we let [celebrities] into our lives, we get to know them, imagine who we believe them to be, and what qualities they have, and often we’re quite wrong, but it’s natural that our brain fills in the gaps of who Anthony Bourdain is and what it might be like to hang out with him," she says. "It really does start to feel that we have a personal connection to celebrities."
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In fact, she says, the first step to mourning the death of a celebrity is to acknowledge that it's not weird or silly to be sad about it, even if you didn't personally know them. It's valid to be upset.
"Acknowledge that this is real, because you felt a connection to them," she says. "Even if it’s just a minute or 30 seconds, just witness what you’re feeling and whatever thoughts and feelings come up with that shock and pain."
Beyond that, it's also helpful to talk to someone about how you're feeling, even if you just share a moment of shock with the person next to you at the coffee shop. Dr. Kissen also recommends channeling your feelings into some sort of action, or doing something to take your mind off it. ("Engage in a behavior," she says. "Think less, do more.")
If, however, you can't seem to work through these emotions on your own, it's always helpful to talk to a mental health professional.
"If you’re feeling really stuck in it, it’s always better to reach out and get help," she says. "If you feel really thrown off by this wave of tragedy, ask your primary care doctor to see if they have someone who can help you get through this tough week. You don’t have to wait until it’s something in your direct life or a direct tragedy to get some support."
You might not have known Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade personally, but they created work that spoke directly to a lot of people's experiences — and there's no shame in being upset that the world has lost them.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
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