Feeling grief for a celebrity is totally normal

I’m grieving for Naya Rivera. It would be weird if I didn’t.

Naya Rivera performing as Santana Lopez on the Glee Live! Tour (Photo credit: vagueonthehow from Flickr, via MaybeMaybeMaybe on Wikimedia Commons)

I was 12 years old when Amy Winehouse died. Ironically enough, my mum texted to tell me the news as I was paying for a poster of the singer in HMV to put up on my bedroom wall. When I was a child, my parents regularly played a copy of her second album Back to Black on the gold HiFi system in our living room. When they split, the music became the soundtrack to my emotional plight; despite being blissfully unaware of the true meaning behind the lyrics, the tone of Amy’s voice resonated deeply (I didn’t understand why the antagonist in the album’s title track “kept his dick wet” until a few years later). So when she passed in 2011, I was floored, despite never having met her — or, at that age, ever really hearing her do anything but sing. Grief is the life-long sidekick and for many like me, the death of a celebrity you admire is your first introduction. I remember getting home, locking myself in my bedroom, putting up the poster, turning on her album, and crying.

When Naya Rivera’s body was found in Lake Piru on Monday, I had a similar kind of response. Glee came on the air when I was 10 years old and I watched it from its very first episode all the way through to the end. For the entire duration, I was an avid fan, regularly finding ways to turn a conversation back to a storyline on the show or gossip about the actors in real life. One of the show’s most significant stars for myself and many was Rivera who played Santana Lopez. A young Latina woman who struggled with her sexuality in the face of adversity from peers and parents alike, Santana was a gay icon for many young people of my generation, especially young gay girls. And by extension, Rivera was a guiding light herself. In both the role that made her famous and in real life too, she showed that there is nothing more vital than speaking truth to power and being true to yourself. As a pre-pubescent homosexual who regularly found ways to project myself onto the characters in the show, it’s no exaggeration to say that she changed the course of my life for the better.

So when the news of Rivera’s passing was announced on Monday, I felt physically gutted. Despite not following along with her career after the end of the show in 2015, I felt actual grief at the thought of her being gone. I spent four hours scrolling through videos of her on Instagram and listening to her old songs. With every one, the grief intensified. I really felt like I had lost someone important.

When we look to celebrities and let ourselves be guided by what they do, we create a version of them that lives inside of us. My personal version of Naya Rivera is predominantly dictated by her character on Glee, which is of course miles apart from the relationship her friends and family had with her. But as a result of this internalised connection, I feel close to her in a way that no one else does. The version of Amy Winehouse that I fell in love with differs massively to others’ because of the relationship she played in the wake of my parent’s divorce. Despite the fact that she had never spoken to me personally, each track on that album felt like it was just for me, talking to me, guiding me along my journey. Naya Rivera did the same thing with her character on Glee, so when she died, I felt like a part of me went with her.

I’ve heard a lot of negative opinions surrounding people who grieve for anyone but their nearest and dearest — only recently did I hear someone get scolded for taking a sick day to grieve for a pet. But I think grief is much more far-reaching than that. I feel grief when I look at my younger sister, longing for the innocence she’s losing as she grows older; I feel grief when I think about my school days and the way that I’ll never get to experience that kind of life again; and I feel grief when the world loses another celebrity I admire, desperately sad for the severance of our personal, albeit one-sided relationship. Of course these griefs are different from one another and of course they’ll all affect people in different ways, but not all griefs were created equal. Grief is a relationship that you tend to and grow alongside of for your entire life. It would be negligent to suggest that it’s one-size-fits-all.

I can’t be the only one who feels a similar kind of grief for celebrities whose lives never even crossed over with mine. One of my favourite late-night pastimes is watching episodes of The Judy Garland Show, a variety show that ran for a single season in the 1960s only five years before Garland’s tragic passing. The show ignites a spark of joy within me that I feel in few other places. The emotional relationship I’ve built with that version of Judy, despite each party coming to meet across a 50 year time gap, is one that makes me desperately sad when I remember how it will never be more than this. The amount of Judy that I can consume to feed my love became finite the moment she died.The fact that I will never be able to expand on my love further is what troubles me the most.

I worry about the deaths of Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand maybe even more than I worry about the deaths of some of my own family members. The fact that I don’t know either of them personally has very little to do with it. The influence they’ve had on my life over the years is gargantuan enough to devastate me when that run is over. I believe that part of the reason we grieve is because we miss the influence those people have had on different parts of our personalities. That’s more than can typically be said for some members of extended family. I grieve for friends I’ve lost because of the risks they made me take, and I’d grieve for Meryl Streep because of the confidence she’s made me embrace. In my life at least, my personality is built on the influences I’ve had around me. From my Grandmother, to my aunt, and from my sister, to Barbra, the thought of losing one of those influences feels personal.

Maybe it’s a side effect of being an emotional person. Or maybe it’s because I’m a person who connects so closely with the art I consume, but I think it’s a privilege to mourn the loss of a person I never knew. It’s a testament to their ability to touch lives and inspire and to ignore that influence would be to forgo the joy and resonance their work instilled within me. To put it simply: to celebrate them in life but to not grieve them in death is a hollow and baseless paradox.

This kind of grief was present in younger childhood, too. My mother’s side of my family has a very loose connection to the band Queen, one of those loose connections that my mum brings up all the time, but deep within that wild claim to fame is a passion for a man that she has never forgotten. The death of Freddie Mercury is perhaps the grief that presided over my childhood most of all. It’s rare to discuss music without her bringing him up, in reverence and in adoration. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that I ended up flamboyant and camp myself, but if my mother’s little-noted grief for Freddie has taught me anything, it’s that there is little similar to the life-long impact of an idol on their fan.

Naya Rivera and the character she played on Glee have helped countless young people across the globe come to terms with who they are, despite the pushback they’ve had from others. Naya brought to life one of the first openly lesbian characters on network television and realised her with pathos, complexity and heart. She was sexy and flirty in addition to her own sense of agency and confidence, a lesbian character that finally felt like she wasn’t made just for the male gaze. She took a flat character with a handful of lines in the pilot, to a fully-fledged leading player by the series finale. It takes talent, dedication to your message, and incredible faith from your colleagues to achieve something as seismic as that.

And Naya’s beauty in life has been made abundantly clear these past few days alone: the eulogies from fellow cast members demonstrate how attentive and caring she was to everyone she met; her final moments were spent trying to save her son. Her family and friends will miss her greatly, and so will those of us who had the pleasure of connecting with her through our TV screens. While we’ll all grieve for her to different extents, the feeling remains the same.

Freddie helped shape my mother’s way of life, Naya Rivera helped shape mine, and Amy Winehouse deeply shaped us both. Without these influences, we would not be who we are today. We spend our lives watching people on television for weeks and years on end, listening to the same singers every day as we make the trek to work. To think that the loss of those people wouldn’t have a profound impact on our emotions is ignorant when we spend more time with these people than we do some of our family members. And while it may not be the same as losing a relative or a loved one, that in no way makes the feeling any less painful. In the words of Elton John: “your candle burned out long before your legend ever did”. Despite Naya’s passing, Santana and the rest of her legacy live on forever. And for that, I am grateful.

Culture is my life. Curiosity is my driving force. You can find me on Twitter at @shaunycat. Website: shaunnolan.com

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