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Why We Mourn Celebrities and Long-Forgotten Friends

How our reactions to losses can surprise us, and how the pandemic — and social media — have changed grieving

By Jon Friedman

Whenever my old college roommate Harold calls, I always look forward to a fun, freewheeling conversation. We invariably reminisce about our favorite songs by the Rolling Stones (his favorite band of all time), lament the depressing state of New York professional sports teams, and laugh about the hijinks of our old university pals, while shaking our heads about how so many sensible young women failed to succumb to our charms and rejected us.

The actor Bob Saget wearing a suit while on set of a talk show. Next Avenue, mourn, death, grief
Actor Bob Saget in April 1990  |  Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images via PBS NewsHour

When he called me a few weeks ago, however, I immediately sensed something was amiss. Harold's demeanor was unusually quiet. When you get to our age, your first instinct is to wonder: Who died?

Sadly, I was right on the mark. "We've lost Gary," Harold said somberly.

The question that stayed with me was why, then, did the passing of a casual friend affect me so deeply?

Even though he only mentioned a first name, I immediately knew the score. After a respectful silence, I asked him to tell me some details. "That's all I know," Harold said. 

"You know something," I said, "Gary loved the Grateful Dead so much that I think he'd approve my quoting 'Truckin,' when Bob Weir sings: 'All a friend could say is, Ain't it a shame?'"

Then we said our goodbyes and hung up.

Surprised By My Reaction

For the next few hours, my mind flashed back to my college years and what Harold liked to call "the carefree days." I felt numb and drained by the shocking news. But why?

After all, Gary and I had not stayed in touch, and I hadn't seen the man in some forty years. Heck, we weren't even what I'd call close friends while we were all together back at school. 

The question that stayed with me was why, then, did the passing of a casual friend affect me so deeply?

"We are affected by someone's death for many reasons," explained Dr. Jennifer B. Naidich, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. "We are moved by feelings of nostalgia, personal feelings of vulnerability and natural feelings of grief."

We grieve for all sorts of reasons as well. "Sometimes, we can't help but feel guilty," she added.

Triggering Memories of the Past

Did I feel guilty that I hadn't tried to keep the friendship alive? Or, as it was in the 1983 movie The Big Chill, was I feeling sad because I couldn't quite come to terms with such jolting news?

When I told Naidich that I felt sad, even though I hadn't been in touch with my now-deceased college friend for many decades, she could understand the way I was reacting. 

"The loss of a former friend can trigger old feelings of personal connections," she explained.

The more I thought about it, I had to admit that I was also bothered by the fact that I had not achieved a sense of closure. Perhaps I was reliving some of my guilt over having not been a better friend to someone who had been troubled in college and never got rid of his demons.

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I eventually found a measure of solace in concluding that I was hardly the first person who ever experienced these kinds of feelings. That convenient rationalization did suddenly make me feel a little better.

The Impact of Social Media

If anything, the age-old process of grieving — over the losses of loved ones, friends and public figures alike — has become a complex sensation in the twenty-first century because of the pervasive impact of social media.

A black and white photo of Ronnie Spector sitting on a director's chair. Next Avenue, mourn, death, grief
Ronnie Spector in 1977  |  Credit: Tom Sheehan/Sony Music Archive/Getty Images via PBS

In the early weeks of 2022, social media followers flocked to the Internet to issue soulful posts about the recent passing of all kinds of celebrities, ranging from singers Ronnie Spector and Meat Loaf to comedian Bob Saget and Clark Gillies, who helped lead the NHL's New York Islanders to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships back in the early 1980s. Other recent deaths that elicited an outpouring on social media include Louie Anderson, Sidney Poitier and Betty White (on December 31, 2021).

Of course, most of us never had the pleasure of meeting any of these famous folks, much less claiming them as friends or even acquaintances.

No matter. Having them surfacing back in the news, on the saddest of occasions, was enough to unleash our happy memories of the Ronettes, immortalized by the hit song  "Be My Baby," and the program, "Full House," on which Saget played everyone's favorite TV dad, Danny Tanner; he was also the host of the popular "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Naidich understands why so many of us turn to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to unburden ourselves, whether about the loss of a pop culture fixture, or even to announce the deaths of our loved ones to so many people that we have never met.

"People grieve en masse," Naidich pointed out.

As much as anything we are mourning our own loss of innocence. That's why Beatles fans flock every December 8 to Strawberry Fields in New York's Central Park, a stone's throw from where John Lennon lived, and died on that sad Monday night in 1980, to sing "Give Peace a Chance," "Imagine," and other Lennon classics.

"We are social beings," Naidich stressed. "And now, because of social media, people are able to express their grief on a whole other level than ever before. With celebrities like Meat Loaf and Bob Saget, we remember how young we were when we first encountered them."

The Covid Factor

In these difficult COVID-dominated times, grieving takes on a whole new meaning. Many people were unable to attend funerals in person of loved ones because of health and safety concerns. Mourners had to settle for gathering on Zoom and other forms of modern technology to let out their grief. As the old saying goes, it was better than nothing.

"With celebrities like Bob Saget, we remember how young we were when we first encountered them."

Psychologists have developed a new category for this behavior: Post-COVID Stress Disorder.

"COVID has made grieving more complicated than ever," Naidich observed. "COVID has created [internal] conflicts. [The fact] that we can't mourn in the traditional way has triggered feelings of anger and guilt."

And helplessness. When my old friend Harold gave me the details of a memorial service for Gary, I didn't even bother to write down the information. It was a flippant move on my part or a lack of respect.

I knew I wasn't going to go because I didn't want to gather in a crowd. Call it my personal COVID stress disorder.

And hell yes, I felt very guilty, on top of everything else.

Jon Friedman 


Jon Friedman has been teaching classes geared to freshmen, and other courses, at Stony Brook University since January 2014
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