When Famous People Die

Julie Ballantyne Brown
5 min readJan 2

Why it matters to us.

Photo by Vitaly Sacred on Unsplash

I vividly remember the time when I learned that Kurt Cobain died, back in 1994. I wasn’t a hard-core grunge person, merely flirted with the genre, especially the clothing. He hadn’t been a particular favorite of mine. Still, he had been a voice of GenX and his death floored many of us.

Our friend group, still in our late teens, gathered that evening to reflect. As we listened to Nirvana non-stop, we talked about Cobain and what his life, and his death, had meant. It was a good conversation, thought-provoking and deep, punctuated with the glow of candles and cigarettes. (This was the 90s, after all.) Not only that night but in the following weeks, I learned that others in my friend group held him in high regard and why, and what his life had meant to them. They were grieving, much more than me, but I respected that they were feeling that way.

Celebrity grief is a weird thing. Love them or hate them, it can’t be denied that they play a role in our lives. Whether we find them inspirational, comforting, or vile, we definitely have feelings when they die. Just look at what happened after John Lennon and Princess Diana died. Thousands upon thousands of people held vigils and memorials all over the world, despite never having met them. It’s human nature to mourn those that affect us in some way.

Over the years, there have been many more well-known people to pass away who meant a great deal more to me than Kurt Cobain did. I shed actual tears for Jerry Orbach, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, and Robin Williams. Not sobbing tears, as if a close family member, but there was genuine grief. The deaths of Betty White and Queen Elizabeth II, while not unexpected, were still sad. Betty passed just shy of her 100th birthday and it felt like she got cheated a little. My husband and I were in London this past July and actually at Windsor Castle when the Queen was in residence, so I felt that bit of a personal connection. (The Queen, I’m quite sure, did not feel that same connection to us.) Recently, the deaths of Emilio Delgado and Bob McGrath from Sesame Street were hard to take.

Did I personally know any of these people? Of course not, other than their characters and/or public personas. Why then do we, the general rabble, feel such loss when some celebrities cross over?

Julie Ballantyne Brown

Future London resident. Follow Julie on Twitter: @BrownBallantyne or on FB and Instagram: @JulieBallantyneBrown