Why Are We Sad When Someone We Don’t Know Dies?

When someone dies who had an impact on us — a beloved entertainer from our childhood, for example — we are sad, even though we don’t know the figure personally. But why should that be?

There is no doubt that there is an emotional reaction to the news of someone’s death. For people we know and interact with, that is understandable. That person’s place in our life is missing.

However, we also feel sadness for some we have never met. For instance, a musician who sang a particularly meaningful song, or an author who wrote a touchstone book.

But why? The meaningful part — the song, say, or the book — still exist. They are not being erased from the public consciousness, and in fact may gain some awareness from the creator’s death.

Is it that the person will no longer be creating anything that might move you similarly? Chances are, unless you are a completist, there is music from that artist you have never heard, or books by that author you have never read. There is still new material  — new to you, that is — to be discovered.

Perhaps it is general empathy. We are sad to hear of someone’s death. A life with value has come to an end, which is a cause for mourning.

And yet, people with value die every minute of every day. With eight billion people on the planet, we cannot mourn the passing of each and every one — we would live in a constant tsunami of sadness.

So why, then, are we affected by these individual deaths? Why are we not happy that the person existed in the first place, and created such impactful works of art? Why not take joy that our world can produce such people, who in turn create such meaning?

There is no doubt that we are saddened by the news of these passings. It seems obvious that the feelings exist. But is there a reason why? Why do we feel sad when someone we don’t know dies?

Related questions: Why are people afraid of death? What is the nature of celebrity? What makes you nostalgic? What are you sad about?

3 thoughts on “Why Are We Sad When Someone We Don’t Know Dies?”

  1. Sinéad O’Connor, Prince, Dolores O’Riordan, Scott Hutchison, and ‘tWitch’ (to name just a handful of celebrities) played a role in my life. And the part they played was not short-lived. While they knew nothing of me, I felt like I had known each for years.

    Sinéad’s music and example helped me change from holding one set of beliefs to embracing others during my formative college years. I became angry (and am still angry) at many things she angrily rallied against. Prince lived (at least part-time) nearby, so his musical genius was coupled with many of my friends attending his impromptu home concerts at Paisley Park. And I heard the stories from my friends of the great times they had witnessing Prince play music up close. As with all the others on my list, Dolores O’Riordan and Scott Hutchison died too young. They had more music of meaning to give to the world. tWitch’s dance performances amazed me. And his (outward) expressions of positivity brought me joy.

    I recognize sadness I feel is more about me. While I may discover more pieces showing the artistic contributions of each of these artists, that experience will be more limited due to all of their deaths. For that reason, I sometimes get sad when I think about them.

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