Naya Rivera and Complex Grief

I had a big, embarrassingly big, crush on Naya Rivera. Even before they made Santana’s character gay, my ex used to tease me about the epic, teenage-level crush I had on her. You know that episode on Friends where they talk about their “freebie lists” and Ross crosses off Isabella Rossellini only to bump into her at the coffee shop later? The one about their top five celebrity freebies. Well, Naya had a permanent spot on mine. Right in that number three position – where you put a celebrity who reminds you of a love you missed out on.

For many LGBTQ folks of my generation, Naya Rivera represented a bright spot in mainstream television. Santana Lopez was the best character on the show, beautiful and sharp-witted, and it felt like a win for our “team” when she came out as a lesbian.

Her unexpected death last week has left many feeling sad, even grief-stricken. I personally have felt lowkey embarrassment by how sad I am about Naya’s death. Not because it isn’t sad, it is, but because I didn’t personally know her, so then I feel like I need to hide my grief from others.

Grief, however, doesn’t work that way. My grief doesn’t understand that I didn’t know Naya. My grief just knows someone who meant something important to me is now gone. Teen Vogue posted a great article about why we grieve the deaths of celebrities: they represent an important part of our childhood, an important memory in your life, or even an ideal in some way for you.

This article from Psychology Today echoes a similar sentiment, adding that the death of a celebrity also helps nurture our own empathy and compassion, and tunes us in to our own emotions.

So if you’re feeling sad, lean into feeling sad. Light a candle. Have a cry. Listen to your favorite Naya performances.

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