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?

How Important Is Closure?

When coming to grips with a sudden change in life, some people feel the need for closure in order to move on. But is it really necessary?

Life can change very quickly, in ways both trivial and profound. You might lose a job, there might be a death in the family, or an appliance you depend on may stop functioning.

When a change like this happens, a natural instinct is to look for some closure. That might mean, respectively, an exit interview, a memorial service, or a repairperson’s visit. Once the closure happens, you can move on with your life.

However, closure is not something that occurs in our lives. We are born into a world that is already in motion, and as we grow and learn, we have to get up to speed on the state of things (and pick up some history as well).

Even when we meet someone new, we come in the middle of their story. And if they drift away, as friends sometimes do, there isn’t usually any sort of meaningful end point.

There is little doubt, though, that as a species we crave the sense of narrative completion. We look for it in the movies we watch, the books we read, and in other media we consume. A disappointing finale can ruin an entire TV series.

So which is it? Is a sense of closure necessary to process the events of the day? Or is it irrelevant, just an artificial narrative we construct that has no inherent meaning?

How important is closure?

Related questions: Why are people afraid of death? What can you control? Scripted or unscripted? How do you find peace when you need it?

How Do You Remember Someone Who Has Died?

Death, and dealing with it, is a part of life. When someone you know and like dies, how do you remember them?

The death of a friend or loved one can be traumatic, particularly if that death is unexpected. During the grieving process, there are two primary ways to remember someone.

The first is to remember, or memorialize, soon after the death. Stories might be shared, tears might be shed, and grieving is done communally. In your experience, what are ways that you have publicly celebrated someone’s life?

The second method takes place months and even years after the passing. Remembering what someone was like, after years have gone by, can be difficult. There may be pictures or video to help jog your memory, but even those can be incomplete. And for some people in your life, you may not have any photos or other media saved.

In any case, what can you do to keep that person in your mind? How can you continue to be inspired by them, or be amused, or even just maintain a presence in your life? Is it important?

Related questions: Why are people afraid of death? Does your memory define you? What makes a friendship? Does it matter how long we are remembered?

Does It Matter How Long We Are Remembered?

It is comforting to think that after we die, we will be remembered by others still living. But if we aren’t, what does that mean?

While human life spans have increased — in fact, more than doubled — in the last century or two, life is still exceedingly short. No one has managed to live past a hundred and fifty years old.

The way to immortality, then, is through our legacy. The children we raise. The work that we did that survives us. The stories and memories that continue to live on.

This is a common message through media. Emotional movies tug at our heartstrings, with characters saying that they feel the presence of a loved one. It is a common theme, understandably, at memorial services.


Listen to a podcast where Michael and Lee discuss a related question: ‘What gives a person value?’ We also discuss a bonus question: ‘What makes you you?’


There are humans who have such an impact that they survive in our collective memory. It is usually through a discovery or artistic creation or a momentous feat of some kind. We know the name and achievements of someone who lived a thousand years ago. It would be nice if we were to have such an impact that we would be remembered or celebrated for hundreds or even thousands of years.

But would it really? It really makes no difference to you, after you die. Your death is not made better or happier if your name goes down in history.

Isn’t it more important to live your life in a fulfilling way right now? The future is uncertain at best, and won’t, barring unforeseen increases in human lifespans, include you?

Alternately, if you are not remembered, or only remembered for a short span of time, did your life, your existence, really mean anything at all?

Does it matter how long we are remembered?

Related questions: What gives a person value? Why are people afraid of death? What would you say to people in the future? How do you want to be remembered? Should we be concerned with legacy?