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.