When Prince died April 21, millions of people around the world grieved a pop culture icon. The same thing happened when David Bowie and Alan Rickman passed away in January.
Though some people have criticized the outpouring of emotion for both Prince and David Bowie as “insincere,” there’s actually a psychological reason behind the grief we feel over high-profile deaths.
“Fan mourns not only the loss of the celebrity but other aspects of their personal life which have become bound-up with the celebrity,” Michael Brennan, a sociologist at Liverpool Hope University, told the French Press Agency.
Brennan explained that when we listen to music—particularly as young adults—we’re more likely to form memories tied to the songs themselves.
When we think of their music in the future, we reminisce about long-lost relationships and dreams, and maybe even regret what wasn’t to be. “In mourning the loss of a celebrity fans may therefore also be mourning the loss of personal relationships and the loss of self bound up with memories of a celebrity’s music and other creative endeavors,” he wrote later in an email.
The death of a celebrity also reminds us of our own mortality. “You can die in an elevator alone no matter how rich you are and no matter how talented you are,” Hamira Riaz, a psychologist based in London, told the FPA.
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More cynically, Scientific American reports that there are aspects of grieving for public figures that shore up our own identities as cosmopolitan people: By tweeting or sharing links on Facebook, we can show that we’re in the know about world events.
But Brennan says the media presence of celebrities—especially musicians—make them a real part of our lives. “This does not invalidate the grief-like reactions individuals may experience but rather suggests the power of modern media,” he said.
If our reality is “seeing” a celebrity daily, we very well may feel real sorrow for their loss.