Grieving Cory Monteith and Why Celebrity Deaths Are So Devastating

I know exactly where I was the moment I found out Heath Ledger had died.

Enough time has passed that I feel okay about confessing to having taken a mental health day from my then-job. And I know we’re all friends here at HelloGiggles, so you won’t judge me for admitting that I was bargain-hunting at Ross with my mom that day when my phone buzzed.

My stomach seized up into a tight knot and my vision blurred as I tried to make sense of the words in my friend Whitney‘s heavily punctuated text (had emojis existed in 2008, surely there would have been many). It was an eerie, out-of-body experience that I hadn’t expected to feel in the wake of a stranger’s death. But I couldn’t rationalize my way out of the visceral reaction. And in the ensuing days, weeks, and months of media coverage and speculation, I couldn’t logically explain away the distinct sense of mourning that consumed me.

Heath’s death wasn’t the first time I’d been so deeply affected by news of a celebrity’s passing, and it wouldn’t be the last. I was only nine when River Phoenix died, but hearing my sister and her friends discuss his death seemed surreal. It took a solid hour of obsessively scanning reports before I allowed myself to believe Michael Jackson had actually died. I was in Greece when my travel buddy read the news of Amy Winehouse’s death. I remember getting a slight case of tunnel vision and needing to sit down because the pins and needles in my limbs made it so uncomfortable to continue standing.

I was 17 when Aaliyah died, 18 for Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, 13 at the time of Princess Diana’s death and I was 11 when Selena passed. All of them felt oddly personal.

But somehow all of those emotionally-charged moments paled in comparison to what happened Saturday night when I came across the incomprehensible news that Glee star Cory Monteith was dead.

Even typing that sentence sends shivers down my spine, and I can’t help but feel ridiculous about it. Yes, I’m less ashamed to admit I played hooky in order to bargain shop with my mom than I am to acknowledge how profoundly this stranger’s sudden death is affecting me.

I didn’t know Cory. I met him once, but briefly. I had convinced my incredibly kind, exceptionally influential boss to let me cover the red carpet at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards (and somehow I’m not mortified to tell you that?). I sat alarmingly close to Zac Efron as he charmed the press room, and I caught a glimpse of Robert Pattinson‘s hair in all its Edward Cullen-esque glory from across the auditorium. But the event ended up being sort of a bust and the interviews I’d scored weren’t real scores.

As my friend Melissa and I left the venue tired, hungry, and dejected, we spotted Cory exiting another press tent nearby. FOX had just aired the Glee pilot, and while there was plenty of buzz surrounding him and the show, hardly anyone noticed him strolling sans-publicist through the back lot—even though he towered above most of us at six-foot-three.

In one of many completely unprofessional moves I’ve pulled throughout my short red carpet career, I tapped him on the arm and asked for a photo. He seemed genuinely flattered by the attention, and to this day, I owe Melissa many baked goods and cocktails for snapping the pic while I posed awkwardly with someone so unnervingly good-looking.

I’m not going to pretend the moment was any more intimate than it was, or that I somehow forged a connection to Cory that I can now conveniently exploit in the wake of his death. But he’s the only celebrity I’ve crossed paths with who has gone on to unexpectedly pass away, and I can’t help but think the fleeting interaction impacted my reaction to his death.

Is it stupid, or strange, or silly to mourn the loss of someone we never knew? Given last weekend’s overwhelming amount of newsworthy events, should we feel guilty dedicating headlines, Tweets, and status updates to an actor? Is it superficial? Trivial? Or are most of the heartfelt condolences coming from an insincere, bandwagon-like mentality anyway? When is it okay to admit feeling legitimately torn apart by a famous person’s death, or is it always something we ought to be ashamed about?

Inevitably,  people will argue over the triviality of our societal obsession with celebrity. But as tempting as some may find it to belittle the unrequited fascinations many of us have with famous faces, it’s impossible to deny anyone’s instinctual human response to death and loss. My bachelor’s degree in Psych definitely left me unprepared to present any theoretical explanations for why some of us feel so undeniably shaken by strangers’ deaths. But I have to believe the unexpectedness that accompanies so many celebrity passings coupled with the false intimacy we experience as a result of allowing them into our living rooms feeds into the phenomenon.

I don’t have any solid explanations for why Cory’s death hit me as hard as it did. But I also don’t think there’s an emotional rule book for coping with grief—especially when it occurs in the context of a one-sided relationship to a star. But I might finally be okay with accepting the devastation for what it is. And I hope anyone else finding themselves inexplicably heartbroken over the loss of a stranger can learn to ride the emotions out and withhold judgment or self-criticism. It might just mean we’re human.

Cory, you’ll be missed.

  • Amanda Grace

    I am so sad about his death, Glee was such a big part of my life and it feels as if I lost a friend. I keep thinking about how much pain and grief his family and Lea Michele must be feeling :(

  • Shelby AmandaLee

    It is an odd feeling to grieve the death of someone who you didn’t know. I always find myself with a heavy heart after hearing about the death of a celebrity. I never watched Glee at all, but Cory just seemed like a genuinely good guy whenever I saw him in interviews and such. He also seemed truly troubled by his addiction. I hate that he struggled with these demons and that they ultimately could be the reason he was taken away so early. I also feel sad for Lea Michele as their relationship seemed like something someone my age could relate to.

  • Jenny Lonussen

    There’s this quote in The Perks Of Being A Wallflower – that comes to mind reading this.

    “I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have. Maybe it’s good to put things in perspective, but sometimes, I think that the only perspective is to really be there. Like Sam said. Because it’s okay to feel things. And be who you are about them.”

    I’m not a fan of Cory’s, never met him and I don’t even like Glee but I too found myself saddened by his death. I think that in our celebrity crazed culture we often trivialize the humanity of the object of our affection (or people in general at times?). I’m sad because a young, talented man died (who seemed like he was a really decent and gracious guy) and left behind devastated loved ones. Even without the one-sided, false sense of familiarity, it’s a terrible thing to hear about. As the quote says I don’t think anyone should ever feel ashamed of how they feel. As much as perspective is a good thing it doesn’t take away your own reality – it just might make it more manageable/bearable/less overwhelming? -in some cases. That’s my 2 cents.

    My heart goes out to everyone affected by his death, friends, family, colleagues, loved ones and fans, may he rest in peace.

  • Melissa Goodman

    You were the first person I knew I needed to reach out to when I saw the news… that day was a moment I’m so glad to have shared with you and I have to echo your words about our meeting with Cory. While yes, it was the beginning of his career, he seemed genuinely excited that someone wanted to stop him for a picture.

  • Leslie Marsman

    Hearing about celebrity deaths usually shock me in some way (some more than others), but Cory’s death feels so different. I have no clue why. I find myself tearing up and more often than I’d like to admit, actually sobbing over a man I’ve never met in my life. Something about this feels so personal to me. Maybe it’s a Glee thing or maybe it’s a fellow Canadian thing. I don’t know. I just know that it hurts and I can’t even imagine how his friends and family feel. Rest in peace, Cory.

    • Jennifer Urbas

      I felt this exact same way, not sure why Cory’s passing hit me more than other celebrity deaths …. but it did and I still feel sad when thinking about it…. maybe because he was different: one of those celebrities that you could actually see as your friend, a “normal” guy, funny, nice, cute, accessible .. almost as if he was part of your life… Celebrities share so much their lives that I think it is a normal human reaction to feel grief and sadness when one of them passes away.. especially so young and so suddenly…. May you rest in Peace, Cory, we will miss you!

  • Manon van Schijndel

    Beautifully written article! I was also severely shocked to hear about Cory’s passing, now I know I’m not the only one, nor am I ashamed anymore to admit that it affected me like it did. Thank you

  • Claire Tirilly

    Way to describe this awkward feeling a whole lot of us seem to feel those days. Thanks!

  • Ruxandra Buture

    What a well-written article. Thank you!

  • Sarah Williams

    I don’t find it silly or embarrassing at all. I’m a huge racing fan, and like you, have only met some of these drivers in a moment, some not at all. But when you spend years watching, reading, knowing whats going on in someones life….you feel a bond to them. I will never forget the day Dale Earnhardt died, and still at times remember how I felt. Dan Wheldon’s passing more recently tore my heart apart. I spent a good week crying, trying to keep myself composed enough to carry on with work/life. And then went home and cried and cried like no other. I felt silly too, but realize that a lot of people are this way about different famous people. And it isn’t just how we feel about that. Anyone with an ounce of empathy (I have way too much of it) starts to feel for their friends and loved ones too. In the case of people that die suddenly, who have young children, it’s the most horrible thing.

  • Jessica Holoka

    I think when it comes to celebrities we do feel like we know them because as fans we follow them throughout their career. In a sense, we grow with them as fans. I was saddened by Cory Monteith’s passing. I feel almost like a bad friend because I lost track of my Glee watching this past season. It’s just sad that such a talented young man is gone.

  • Natalie McOwat

    I totally get it. I was so shocked to read that he passed. While there are many people in my thoughts, his family, friends, workmates, I think there is one reason alone I am finding myself profoundly upset about the whole thing- Lea. The sheer love you could see when you saw pictures of them looking at each other hand in hand on holiday, the absolutely genuine connection that was clear even through a paparazzi’s camera. I think the idea that I knew for certain that right now that girl’s heart is broken in a way I can never imagine and hopefully never experience is what got to me.

  • Akilah Hughes

    Great post. Too often after we start mourning the loss of a star, the “backlash” about celebrity begins. People claim that we must be insincere because we didn’t know them so we mustn’t have felt something, right? I think that mentality is ridiculous and agree with your astute pointing out that there is no coping handbook.

    I was greatly upset because he was young and talented and on a show that I used to fangirl but have admittedly stopped watching. Don’t feel sheepish and don’t let anyone tell you how to feel.

  • Kelli Anne

    I could not agree more, I too, remember the exact moment in time when I found out that Heath Ledger had died. I feel the whole thing is very reminiscent of Heath’s passing. I almost feel more sad somehow over Cory’s passing, however, because I just cannot stop thinking about Lea Michele. Heath Ledger was an extraordinary actor, but I have watched Cory Monteith every week for the last four years on television, and having watched him and Lea Michele fall in love on television….it truly is heart-wrenching to know how devastated she must be. You feel like you know them! I am much more bent out of shape over it than I thought I would be.

  • Daniela Cardona

    This is a really good article. You’re perfectly human and empathetic! R.I.P. Cory and little Talia

  • Julie Malenfant

    I strongly reacted to many celebrity deaths. The first thing that goes through my mind is “How young they are and, for that, it could’ve been in my circle of friends.” Aaliyah’s death was a shocker… She was my age at the time and I loved her music.

  • Tanja Wittrien

    I was shocked when I read about Cory’s death. Yes, I’ve never met him but that doesn’t mean that I’m not allowed to be sad. Actors or celebrities share a part of themselves with us through their profession. They become a small part of our everyday life when we want to shut the world out and enjoy some entertainment – dive into a different world. They make us laugh and care for characters that don’t even exist. This makes them vulnerable to all sorts of things (no privacy, etc.) but I guess comes with the territory when you want a career in this industrie.
    When I read comments like “Get over yourself, there are people dying every day!” I feel weirdly attacked in a way. Every life is important and I have dealt with personal losses of my own. But does the fact that there are people dying every day make Cory’s death any less sad? No, it doesn’t. He isn’t just a celebrity, he is one of those people too. He is someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s love and he will be missed.

    • Melanie Seaward

      This is very well said, and I feel the same way. I think Glee is a great show, and in watching them weekly, you do feel a connection to the characters, and thankful for that actor for portraying a character you grow to love. I may not know Cory, but I still feel sad for the loss of someone so young who gave me hours of entertainment and happiness through his portrayal of Finn. I also feel sad for the loss of the relationship between the characters and between Cory and Lea in real life. There is a lot to be sad for here. I also felt sad about the loss of Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. Their deaths were unexpected and tragic, so it just makes sense that a sense of loss would be felt by fans.

      My BA in Psych, my BSW in Social Work, and my half-complete Masters in Social Work agree with you.

  • Caroline De Voecht

    love this article! I think it’s mostly because you see someone on TV, you start to believe they are like their characters and you start to feel like you know them, especially when they tell personal things in interviews. people sometimes get angry over how the death of unknown innocent people in a faraway country can pass without anyone noticing, but I don’t think it’s because we don’t find it important, it’s just because it’s very different when you feel like you know them.

  • Carissa Duran

    Great article. In response to the question of why the death of a stranger affects so many, I offer the following: We are all so intricately and inexplicably intertwined as humans that the death of anyone, (stranger, celebrity, or otherwise) can and should affect us…this sentiment is perfectly captured in the poem below, which does not often receive the credit it deserves.

    No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

    John Donne
    Meditation 17
    Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

  • Javiera Pérez Morales

    I loved this article. Congrats <3

  • Crissi Mora

    I think this is very much like how people mourn book characters when they die after many pages or even many books of getting to know them. When I read the last Harry Potter book, which was surprisingly, brutally violent, many of the innocently enjoyed peripheral characters and some pets were killed off. And it was intensely emotional for me. I think this is the same thing. We really enjoyed the character and now he won’t be there any more. This makes is sad. Plain and simple.

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