Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Recently, we all faced the shocking news of Robin Williams’ death. I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually cried when I found out. I didn’t know him though, so why did his death impact me the way it did? Is it okay to mourn the loss of a stranger – a celebrity we have never even met before?
With Hollywood stars, it’s all too common to get wrapped up in their on-screen personas. We tend to live vicariously through all of their Blockbuster triumphs. As Obama said, “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.” He represents our childhood memories and special moments. To so many of us, he felt like the uncle we knew and loved but never saw.
So why do we mourn one of these “intimate strangers” when they pass away, even when we never maintained a true relationship in real life? Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, explains: “When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal — not because we knew the celebrity but because they were with us as we grew up…”
The same goes for famous authors, singers, musicians (even British royalty). We buy into the emotions behind their bestselling books, #1 hit singles, platinum albums, their weddings and birthdays. Each song, movie, or moment relates to a meaningful time in our own lives. These are connections to our past. It’s the movie we saw on our first date or the song from our junior prom.
In some sense, when a celebrity dies, in the case of Robin Williams, it feels like a piece of our childhood died right along with him. Those memories watching Hook (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Jumanji (1995), and Flubber (1997) somehow seem a little dimmer.
Celebrity deaths also represent a shared moment amongst humanity. In 2009, nearly 31 million people tuned into Michael Jackson’s memorial service, one of the most watched funerals in the world, second only to that of Princess Diana’s funeral in ’97, which captured an audience of 33 million viewers. We all came together to grieve, and we all have a story to accompany our experience. Can you remember where you were when Princess Di’s death was announced? What aspect of the King of Pop’s funeral sticks out most in your mind? How did everyone in your neighborhood react when Selena was killed? Which songs did you listen to while mourning the loss of Whitney?
Photo courtesy of Asterio Tecson‘s Flickr
According to Tracy Marks, M.D., “Research shows that celebrities fill a need for social connectedness in a world grown increasingly isolated.”
Today, we surround ourselves with reality TV shows featuring the elite, which make it seem like we’re an integral part of their glamorous lifestyles. Social media creates an even closer proximity between us and the rich-and-famous. We follow celebrity Twitter and Instagram accounts. Their victories become our victories. Their downfalls, our downfalls.
Social media makes us feel closer to these strangers, and when a celebrity dies, Facebook and other social media outlets also tend to mend the wound for a moment, offering us therapy for a lot less than the cost of a psychologist.
After the news of Robin Williams’ death, emotion spread through social media almost instantaneously. Celebrities and regular folk alike began tweeting their grief in 140 characters or less, shown in this HuffingtonPost article. Newsfeeds displayed favorite movie clips, quotes, and remembrances of the beloved comedian.
On one hand, we all want to feel connected to this loss. We all want to state claim in even the smallest of ways.
My first thought: I can’t believe he’s gone. I just finished watching his stand-up this weekend.
Someone else’s thought: He’s really gone. The Birdcage is my all-time favorite movie.
A celebrity’s thought: I met him on several occasions. He was wonderful. He will be missed.
No matter how far removed we are from the situation or how absent we were in his life, we felt connected to him upon death. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram only added to the collective mourning process, and that’s okay. This New York Times article explains how tweeting or posting a status update about a celebrity death can be cathartic for people.
Psychcentral.com’s #1 tip for dealing with the loss of a loved one (and a celebrity falls under this category as well) is to seek help, whether it’s from family and friends or from a professional grief counselor. Chiming in on social media is a great first step to talking about the sadness everyone seems to be feeling.
Social media can be both a blessing and a curse though. Try to protect yourself. If it does become too overwhelming and no longer helpful, take a break from all of the hype.
love & peace,