Why Naya Rivera’s Death Poses Unique Grief For Fans


It has now been ten days since actress Naya Rivera drowned saving her young son on Lake Piru in California and like many, I have been grieving. I’ve struggled to put into words exactly what I am feeling, the mix of emotions of shock, sadness, empathy for her family and close friends, and anger that the world lost such a bright light; that the LGBTQ+ community lost one of their own and someone who shined a ray of hope for us when queer representation was still so limited and existed often only with targets on their back.

Best known for playing Santana Lopez on Glee, a no-nonsense, smart-mouthed lesbian cheerleader with a secret heart of gold, Naya was thrust into the queer fandom’s spotlight when her character’s arc began to reveal it’s “sweet lady kissing” undertones. To be an actor of a show with a large fandom is intense, but adding in the responsibility of playing a queer woman of color character, Naya never once took for granted the role she was destined to play.

Santana’s gayness came at a time when being a lesbian on TV still meant certain death. Countless articles have been written since Rivera’s passing talking about the incredible impact her role had on the LGBTQ+ community. The coming out story we watched unfold on Glee as Santana told her abuelita that she “loved girls the way [she’s] suppose to feel about boys,” and the heartbreak that followed as she was told to leave her house and not return because it was a sin, felt mirrored by so many young queer people who had endured the same thing. Though not the only gay character on the show, Santana’s storyline seemed to have the most effect for queer Glee fans. Despite being abandoned by her grandmother, her parents and friends in glee club showed her (and fans) that sometimes family is not blood. This was a pivotal realization for young fans watching Santana thrive, despite being denied by a family member whom she loved.

Photo: Getty Images

Naya’s own coming out story goes practically unnoticed by fans, yet is just as important. In 2015, Naya seemingly outed herself as bisexual on The View, in a conversation with Rosie O’Donnell. Time and time again, Rivera had showed up for the queer community, advocating for The Trevor Project and GLAAD, and listening to countless stories from young LGBTQ+ fans that thanked her for her portrayal of Santana. It is clear in the way that Rivera announced her own queerness, with a sly, quick-witted remark followed by an Instagram post with a simple “hush” emoji, as if she admits to ‘letting the cat out of the bag,’ that her own bisexuality was nothing to be ashamed of; it was just a simple fact about her and it was not a big deal. That being queer was not a big deal. Because it shouldn’t be. But Naya was smart and well articulated, and there is no way that she did not know exactly what she was saying when she spoke with O’Donnell. She was coming out knowing it would matter to her young fans, but owned it as a part of herself that she felt no shame for. Naya was leading by example. Embracing her own identity as she hoped her fans would do as well.

As I have watched the Gleeks mourn over the last week, there is something unique that has occurred because of Naya’s death that I have not seen happen when other celebrities have died.

Fans are mourning Naya but are also mourning Santana

Though ending in 2015, the Glee storyline officially ends in the Fall of 2020, still months from now. In the final shots of the show, we see Santana (and Puck for that matter) present and on stage, singing one final song with the New Directions. The show ends fading out on the memorial plaque of Finn Hudson, played by Cory Monteith.

In the summer of 2013, Monteith died of an accidental overdose, sending the upcoming season of Glee into an unexpected plot line that show-runner Ryan Murphy never anticipated. Finn’s death was written into the third episode of the fifth season of Glee, in the heartbreaking episode “The Quarterback.”

Because fans had to mourn Monteith and then months later relive his loss by mourning his character Finn, the disconnect of reality and fiction was blurred. This thin line was made even less distinct by the fact that at the time of his death, Monteith was dating Lea Michele, who played Finn’s love interest on the show. Our grief for Michele was intertwined with that of our grief for her character, Rachel Berry.

Fans watched “The Quarterback” in awe, as Michele and the rest of the cast said goodbye to both Finn Hudson and Cory Monteith in one 45 minute episode. As each character sang their songs in remembrance of Finn, a few moments of true mourning for the actor were apparent. As Rachel spoke of Finn and sings “Make You Feel My Love,” fans wondered if they were seeing Rachel or Lea on their screens. The line of fiction and reality was thin in her performance, as her voice cracked in anguish.

But the line was completely abolished by Naya Rivera. As the wise cracking Latina from Lima Heights (adjacent), Santana is not expected to be the character to be completely destroyed by the death of Finn Hudson. But the story played out that way because Naya was devastated by the loss of her friend Cory, and completely loses herself in her character’s dedication performance. (Which I just cannot watch anymore without bawling my eyes out, so instead enjoy this picture of Santana and Finn).

Naya with Cory Monteith as Finn Hudson       Photo: FOX

Since it was announced that Rivera was missing on July 8th, her heartbreaking performance of “If I Die Young” in “The Quarterback” has flooded social media. And rightfully so, in more ways than one. The Band Perry‘s song is a painful ballad all on it’s own. As Santana belts the words to her Glee mates, the character fades away and Naya returns, in the most gut wrenching scream of despair and anguish over the loss of Monteith, not Finn. Despite breaking from the script, this scene was kept in the episode as it truly expressed the grief the entire cast and crew were feeling.

If the actors cannot maintain the line between fantasy and reality, how are fans expected to? We mourned with Rachel and Santana just as much as we mourned with Lea and Naya. The loss now of Naya is no different.

Naya Rivera’s death is a two-folded tragedy for queer fans everywhere

And the fact that Rivera’s body was finally recovered after missing for five days, on the seventh anniversary of Monteith’s death is just one final layer of trauma for friends, family and Gleeks, alike.

Once her death was officially announced, artistic fans immediately began expressing their grief through their work. One piece I found interesting was a memorial plaque created for Santana Lopez, marking her death, not Rivera’s. In a clear nod to that of the one created for Finn Hudson, Santana Lopez is now being grieved by fans, despite the fact that we clearly saw her exist well into the Fall of 2020. This disconnect from the storyline mirrors that of Michele and Rivera’s performances in the fifth season episode.

It may also explain why fans are willing to mourn Noah “Puck” Puckerman, but not that of the actor who portrayed him (who we are purposely not going to talk about).

Another somewhat unique element to the loss of Naya Rivera, is how fans are turning to her friends and co-stars, eagerly looking to them for their own grief.

Don’t get me wrong, when any celebrity dies, fans will immediately turn to those associated with that celebrity to see the reminiscent words that they offer. But generally the fans are not looking for character grief, as they seem to be doing in this case.

Glee fans have begun to show up at Lake Piru, creating a memorial for Naya Rivera. We’ve followed along as her fellow Glee alum post pictures and heartfelt tributes to the late actress. Yet, every fan seems to have one particular cast member in mind when thinking of the loss they are all enduring: Heather Morris.

Heather Morris as Brittany S. Pierce and Naya Rivera as Santana Lopez               Photo: FOX

Heather Morris played Brittany S. Pierce, Santana’s love interest and eventual wife. Morris and Rivera are known to be incredibly close friends, as well. Yet the feeling that fans are looking to Morris as Brittany, rather than that of herself, is inescapable.

Days into Naya’s disappearance, Morris reached out to the Ventura County Sheriff’s office in charge of the recovery of Rivera, begging to help in any way she could. Impatient fans praised Morris’ efforts and as pictures emerged of Morris and the Glee cast at the lakefront on July 13th, hearts broke knowing they all mourned the loss of their Naya.

The question I pose now to fans is this: do you see Heather or Brittany in those photos? Is the line so skewed between reality and fiction for Brittana shippers, that your hearts ache for them one in the same, just as it was when we watched Rachel/ Lea and Santana/ Naya mourn Finn/ Cory?

This unique predicament is causing fans to mourn in ways that many are having a difficult time articulating. Though logic tells them that the actress is gone and not her character, the correlation with previous Glee deaths is causing fans to look back at the show they love and feel the loss of Santana, and in-turn, her wife Brittany. Fan’s hearts are breaking because of the loss of a gay character, and not only the loss of a bisexual actress who loved her queer fans. Naya Rivera’s death is a two-folded tragedy for queer fans everywhere.

[A word of caution: Though the psychology of this grief is reasonable given previous tragedy this community has faced, both on screen and off, it is imperative to give Naya’s family, friends and co-stars all the respect in the world during this time. Though our grief is great, their’s is immeasurable. Please refrain from putting Heather in the position to grief Santana as Brittany, and let her grieve Naya as herself].

The Glee community has endured more than it’s fair share of tragedy. Some have gone so far as to believe the show is cursed. Regardless of your belief on the matter, the show and it’s alum continue to be beloved by it’s fans.

In glee club, when words could not be found, they used the lyrics to songs to express their emotions. Because of this, I’ll offer the following song as my own tribute to Naya, her young son, family, friends, co-stars, and the entire Glee fandom. I hope it brings you some solace.

“Sorrow” by Sleeping at Last

It feels like falling
It feels like rain
Like losing my balance
Again and again
It once was so easy
Breathe in, breathe out
But at the foot of this mountain
I only see clouds
I feel out of focus
Or at least indisposed
As this strange weather pattern
Inside me takes hold
Each brave step forward
I take three steps behind
It’s mind over matter
Matter over mind
Slowly, then all at once
A single loose thread
And it all comes undone
Where there is light
A shadow appears
The cause and effect
When life interferes
The same rule applies
To goodness and grief
For in our great sorrow
We learn what joy means
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it
I don’t want to fight, I don’t want to fight it
But I will learn to fight, I will learn to fight
‘Til this pendulum finds equilibrium
Then all at once
The dark clouds depart
And the damage is done
So pardon the dust
While this all settles in
With a broken heart
Transformation begins


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