Children, especially younger ones, process grief in different ways. Grief is not a feeling that we reserve solely for our loved ones; we also experience grief at the passing of people with whom we feel a strong connection, such as sports stars, actors, musicians and authors. Think about recent celebrity deaths, such as that of Disney star Cameron Boyce or of NBA star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna. How can you help your child process grief?
How celebrity deaths can affect a child
As children grow and build their identities, the media they consume can become a part of it.
“Children and young adults can identify closely with TV characters, celebrities or sports stars,” said Katy Hopkins, Ph.D., psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Associates. “When one of these celebrities dies, it can definitely trigger grief and sadness. If the celebrity is a similar age to the child, it also can make older children and teens consider their own mortality.”
Celebrity deaths often can echo other memories of loss — grandparents, relatives and friends — which can amplify grief, even though your child may have no direct connection to the person. Adults aren’t immune to this phenomenon, either.
“For children who haven’t yet experienced death in their personal lives, the death of a favorite celebrity can mimic that ‘first death’ experience,” Dr. Hopkins said. “A child may become overly concerned about safety for their loved ones, including parents, siblings and friends.”
Grief in the social media age
Social media gives people the access and ability to understand celebrities more than ever. And this access can allow children to build stronger connections to their favorite celebrities in a way that wasn’t possible in the past. For a child, reading a favorite celebrity’s tweets can be indistinguishable from a school friend’s.
Norton Children’s Medical Associates
“It’s important for parents to normalize the child’s feeling of sadness; think about how deeply you felt things at their age,” Dr. Hopkins said. “The connection your child has to the person is real; don’t minimize it because ‘you didn’t know them.’
“Allowing them to feel and experience their grief, as complicated as it may be, is important. If you try to shield or ‘solve’ their grief, it may hamper them from being able to process grief in the future.”
According to Dr. Hopkins, while giving kids space to experience uncomfortable feelings is important, parents also should look out for any changes in behavior.
“If your child isn’t acting like themselves, or if they’re missing school or activities they enjoy, you should talk to your child’s pediatrician,” Dr. Hopkins said. “These changes may indicate there is something else that needs to be evaluated so a child can get additional help.”