At 38 Hall Of Famer Clijsters Makes Latest Return To Tennis On the afternoon of Jan. 26 I was at the Indiana men’s basketball game when a chorus of cellphones in the crowd pinged, alerting them to the news of Kobe Bryant’s death. Soon, it seemed like the entire nation was in mourning.
Sure, we might expect the basketball world to grieve the passing of one of its all-time greats. But grief came from all corners. The Grammy Awards featured poignant tributes to Bryant. President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama offered their condolences. People who had never met Bryant told reporters they felt like they had just lost a family member.
How can so many be so deeply affected by the death of someone they’ve never even met? Why might some people see Kobe Bryant as a family member?
As a social psychologist, I’m not surprised by these reactions. Why losing Kobe Bryant felt like losing a relative or friend
1. Feelings formed from afar
These tend to be one-way relationships with people whom we’ve never met or interacted with, but nonetheless feel intimately connected to.
Although ideas about parasocial bonds were first developed in the 1950s, they’ve garnered a lot of attention over the past couple of decades. For example, loyal fans of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres watch their shows almost every day, with the hosts actively trying to build a warm rapport with their viewers and their audience developing intense feelings of attachment.
But interest in parasocial relationships has exploded in the age of social media. People who follow celebrities on Twitter and Instagram get access to their relationships, emotions, opinions, triumphs and travails.
Even though it’s a one-way relationship – what are the chances a celebrity actually responds to a fan’s message on social media? – fans can feel a profound level of intimacy with the famous people they follow. Kobe Bryant, with over 15 million followers on Twitter and nearly 20 million followers on Instagram, clearly had a massive following.
2. The ‘what if’ factor
Still, there was something about Bryant’s death that seemed particularly tragic. Why losing Kobe Bryant felt like losing a relative or friend
There’s no way to measure whether the outpouring of public grief surpassed that of recent celebrity deaths like Michael Jackson, Prince or Robin Williams. But it’s certainly possible that the unique circumstances surrounding Kobe Bryant’s death evoked stronger emotions.
Bryant died in a helicopter during extremely foggy conditions.
Furthermore, Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in the accident, along with seven others.
Students walk beside a mural of Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna at a basketball court in Taguig, Philippines. AP Photo/Aaron Favila
3. It’s about us, not him
I’d also add that our grief over Kobe’s death may actually be less about him – and more about us.
According to “terror management theory,” reminders of our own mortality evoke an existential terror. Bryant’s death was a stark reminder that life’s too short to hold onto petty grudges.
His death was random and tragic, reminding us that we, too, will someday die – and making us wonder what we’ll have to show for our lives.