I learned about Chadwick Boseman’s tragic passing at the age of 43 Friday night via text news alert. I was sitting on my couch, watching something forgettable, when my phone buzzed: “Actor Chadwick Boseman, dead at 43 from colon cancer.” There had to be a mistake. Chadwick Boseman? Black Panther Chadwick Boseman? Jackie Robinson Chadwick Boseman? Marshall Chadwick Boseman? No way. Just two months ago he was earning rave reviews for his turn in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, already generating some well-deserved Oscar buzz.
There is something particularly devastating about losing a celebrity you’ve grown to love through film or television. As Dr. Deborah Kissen told Refinery29 at the time of Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide, "[When] 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. It really does start to feel that we have a personal connection to celebrities."
That tragedy is compounded when, as in Boseman’s case, it comes seemingly out of nowhere. Not only do we have to come to terms with the loss of such a great talent, we’re also tempted to reexamine his legacy in light of the unfathomable bravery he showed in the face of a terminal illness. For four years, Boseman concealed his cancer diagnosis, all while giving the world unforgettable (and incredibly physical) performances in films with historic cultural importance. He suffered silently to bring so many so much joy. It’s heroic, but also so lonely, and it’s sad to think of someone having to make that decision at all.
All weekend, I watched as Twitter lit up with short remembrances, snippets of Boseman’s speeches, memories of times spent in theaters watching him. His Marvel Cinematic Universe colleagues shared experiences of him as a co-star and friend, right alongside fans who had never met him. I rewatched Black Panther and wept when T’Challa visited his father (John Kani) on the ancestral plane plane. But I also laughed at the more lighthearted banter between T'Challa and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and then cheered Wakanda on to victory. It reminded me of times I spent sitting shiva for departed relatives. The Jewish tradition demands that mourners spend seven days with family and friends, reminiscing, crying, laughing, and eating together, in celebration of the life lost. At a time when a community feels out of reach, the internet quickly becomes one big shiva circle, offering support during this time of suffocating grief .
The sudden, lurching sadness I felt reminded me of a prior celebrity death. It was January 22, 2008 — my 18th birthday — and I was sitting on my living room couch, daydreaming about that night’s party plans. Suddenly, my best friend sent me a text: “Happy birthday! Btw Heath Ledger died.” For a split second, the world crumbled. It was the first time I ever experienced that feeling of loss for a celebrity on such a personal level, and I didn’t fully understand it.
There are many who will dismiss that grief: How can you be sad at the loss of a stranger?
Celebrities aren’t strangers. I mean, they are in the most literal sense; the vast majority of us will never even come within sight distance of them in real life. And yet, we don’t feel like we know them in the superficial way that one might know an acquaintance. Fan connection can run much deeper; the celebrity feels more like a trusted friend. These names in lights speak to us on a visceral level, making us feel things, hitting us with emotional highs and lows, inspiring hope and awe, fear and dread, love and lust. Mourning for a celebrity isn’t so much mourning for them as a person — although that is certainly part of it, especially when, like Boseman, they proved to be genuinely kind and altruistic — it’s about mourning for what they meant to us, for that connection that made us feel like they were our special companion. We mourn for ourselves, and for what they gave us. We mourn for what they’ll never get to accomplish, and the gaping cultural hole they leave behind.
Boseman’s loss is experienced in a different way by every single person who watched him, although undeniably more acutely by the Black community, already dealing with so much painful loss and destruction. “Walking into the theater to see Black Panther in February 2018 was the closest I’d come to going to church since, well, church,” my colleague Kathleen Newman-Bramang wrote in her own remembrance of Boseman. That sense of awe, of powerful faith and belief, is what feels temporarily stolen when a legend dies. We start searching for meaning, and looking inwards for answers, as we did in the aftermath of the losses of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Prince, Brittany Murphy, Kobe Bryant, Alan Rickman, Whitney Houston — figures who loomed so large in the culture, and yet felt like they belonged to each and every one of us.
Watching Boseman in Black Panther over the weekend, I was struck by just how gentle he made his heroes, their immovable strength cloaked in expressive glances and stoic smiles, punctuated with moments of spontaneous joy. But therein lies the glorious nature of film. Those we lose will not grow older, but we will. We’ll revisit their performances, over and over again, and our relationship with them will evolve. The loss of their potential will never fade, but their legacy remains forever. Whenever you want to feel something — anything — they’ll be there for you.