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How to Help Kids Deal With the Death of a Favorite Celebrity

The grief they feel is real — here's how to support them.

when kids' favorite celebrities die chadwick boseman, kobe bryant, naya rivera, mf doom, luke perry

For a long time, my 15-year-old son, Darren, has declared that MF DOOM is his favorite rapper (the MF stands for Metal Face, a reference to the mask he wears). He has all of the MF DOOM albums and hung posters of the artist in his room. Darren’s Instagram name is even a play off of MF DOOM. My son has gone on and on about the many reasons he likes the artist and his music: MF DOOM reads the dictionary and the rapper taught him about obscure things like Eyjafjallajökull (a volcano in Iceland — I had to look that one up). MF DOOM’s songs even introduced him to music from the 1970s. In many ways, he’s been a positive celebrity role model for my son.

So, late last year, when MF DOOM’s family shared on Instagram that the rapper had died, my son was crushed. He cried when he told me. My heart broke for him.

Unfortunately, the past year has been one of many losses in the celebrity world, including Kobe Bryant and Chadwick Boseman. For guidance, I turned to grief and loss experts, who explained why these deaths have such a big effect on children and offered advice about how to help kids through it.

Why can celebrity deaths deeply affect children and teens?

The answer is simple: The child feels a connection to the person. “Even if your child hasn’t met the celebrity, that person can still have a huge impact on your child’s life and identity development,” says Jana DeCristofaro, LCSW, Community Response Program Coordinator at The Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children & Families. An actor’s character in a movie or cartoon may have helped your young kid feel brave in scary situations. An athlete’s skills may motivate your child to go after specific goals. Or an artist’s music may serve as reminders of important moments in your teen’s life, like her first school dance.

Social media also plays a big part. “There’s more access to celebrities and kids can get a glimpse of a star’s day-to-day life if the celebrity is very active on TikTok, Instagram or Facebook,” DeCristofaro says. That can make a celeb feel almost like a virtual friend, she adds. So when the person is no longer here, it hurts.

To help your child: First, be honest.

When you have conversations about death, be mindful of where your child is developmentally. With young kids, avoid euphemisms like, “went to sleep.” That can be confusing. It’s best to use simple, clear, age-appropriate language, DeCristofaro says. “You might say, ‘Honey, I have bad news. [Celebrity] died this weekend. He had a heart attack. That means his heart stopped working and then his body stopped working. He is no longer alive.’”

Allow your child’s feelings.

Kids may go through many emotions after a beloved superstar dies — sadness, disbelief, confusion, fear and anger. It’s hard, but allow them to have those feelings. “Your job is to be present and compassionate, not to fix it or take away those emotions,” DeCristofaro says. If you try to “fix” the situation, your child will sense your discomfort or disinterest and feel they can’t share their feelings and must pretend everything is okay. That can shut down communication about the death and possibly other uncomfortable topics in the future.

Talk and listen.

Preschoolers and school-age kids may have many questions and want to talk about the celebrity or their death often. Make time to answer questions and have honest discussions. Some books that may be helpful include Something Very Sad Happened by Bonnie Zucker and The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr. Let your child know it’s normal to feel different emotions after someone we like dies.

Some preteens and teens may also want to talk, but others might choose to keep their feelings to themselves. That’s okay. Don’t try to force your child to share their feelings if they don’t want to, says Emilio Parga, M.Ed., executive director at The Solace Tree in Reno, Nevada. “Say, ‘Whenever you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen,’” he advises. Then when your child is ready, listen. Don’t try to change the subject to something more cheerful, or tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel.

Help your child process grief.

“Expressing their emotions, sharing with others, listening to music, watching movies and writing in a journal are some ways people process grief,” Parga says. Older children may spend hours listening to the artist’s albums, watching an actress’s movies back-to-back or sharing pics and interviews of an athlete on social media.

Younger kids may need help coming up with ways to honor the person’s life. You could help your child print or cut out magazine photos of the celebrity to make a small collage, encourage them to draw a picture of the person or write a letter or poem about the celebrity.

DeCristofaro says it can be helpful for kids of all ages if you show interest, such as asking what’s your child’s favorite song, video or movie by the celebrity.

Prepare for swinging emotions.

Don’t be surprised if your child is upset one minute and playing with toys or laughing up a storm five minutes later. “Grief is very cyclical, and people go through grief bursts,” Parga says. That means your kid may seem fine one moment, and then days, weeks or even months later, something may trigger the sadness again, he explains. Remind your child that you’re always there to talk or listen.

Know when to get help.

It’s impossible to say when someone will feel better after a celebrity’s death, Parga says. He recommends letting your child work through it at their own pace, but keep an eye out for signs they may need professional support to cope with the grief. Some things to look for include: ongoing sleeping or eating trouble, withdrawal from friends and family, excessive anger, an inability to perform normal daily activities or talk of harming themselves or others.

The death of your child’s favorite celebrity is not easy. Fortunately, it turns out I handled it well. I let my son feel and express his emotions, we talked about what MF DOOM’s music meant to him and I allowed him to play the rapper’s many (many) albums on repeat. Now, Darren still gets down sometimes but bounces back quickly. He says he reminds himself that MF DOOM will forever live on through his music.

If you suspect your child is experiencing depression, anxiety or any other mental health issues, find information and resources by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's helpline at (800) 662-4357. The helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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