As we all know by now, actor Robin Williams died by suicide earlier this week. Sadly, his passing comes on the heels of other departures by famous people like Maya Angelou, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple and Paul Walker to name just a few. And while death always catches our attention, sometimes it also causes us to catch our breath—especially when it strikes those we consider too young. Yet the truth is, we don’t know these people. Our only connection to them comes from highly filtered stories from the media. So what is it that triggers the widespread mourning that so many feel when tragedy hits our celebrities? Here are nine reasons I found that might help to explain the phenomenon.
1) People want to connect to powerful stories. While we don’t know the real person behind the celebrity, they do offer us a powerful story that we can connect and relate to on many levels. “If you look historically, it was common for people to stand outside the palace gates when kings or emperors died,” said Karen A. Cerulo, chair of the Department of Sociology at Rutgers. “I think there has always been a sense that the very visible – we have a connection with them,” said Cerulo.
2) They fulfill our need for social connectedness. Many people consider celebrities to be “intimate strangers” that we often know better than our neighbors, coworkers and sometimes even our family. According to Tracy Marks, M.D., “ Research shows that celebrities fill a need for social connectedness in a world grown increasingly isolated.” We especially connect to any who we believe shares something we ourselves can relate to on a personal level.
3) They are a bridge to our past. “When a celebrity passes, the loss is personal — not because we knew the celebrity but because they were with us as we grew up and as we had our own special moments,” says Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York. Dr. Tracy Marks continues with, “When a celebrity dies, we cherish their art in which we’ve enfolded our own memories, and we mourn their death for the piece of our own cultural history that dies with them.
4) Celebrity death reminds us of our own mortality. The surprise of unexpected death is always a reminder of how fleeting life can be. While most of us are fortunate that those close to us usually pass less frequently or as unexpectedly, in some ways such loss prepares us for when that time comes.
5) By recognizing that other lives matter, we assure ourselves that ours do too. Grief expert and author David Kessler explains that centuries ago we gathered together in churches or town squares to talk about the dearly departed. Now we do it on the internet. Those gatherings allowed us to share our grief, have it witnessed, and acknowledge that death is something universal to us all.
6) It gives us social solidarity. One form of that is BIRG (basking in reflected glory.) Spee Kosloff, an experimental psychologist at California State University at Fresno says about celebrity death, “It’s abbreviated ‘BIRG’. Celebrities are symbols…symbols of fame, wealth, uniqueness, good hair. By our association with them, we can BIRG and gain a feeling of cosmic specialness.” Of course when celebrities die we must hold on to the memories that told us that we identified with them, we understood them, we related better than others. “It’s inflating your own personal tie to the thing that makes you exceptional.”
7) We are empathetic by nature. Most of us care about others, especially those we know. And because some of the time we know celebrities as well as some family members (or at least think we do) when something tragic happens to them, we put ourselves in their shoes and imagine both what they and the survivors are experiencing.
8) We are obsessed with death as a culture. Journalist Jawn Murray says, “There are three topics that Americans are fascinated with, birth, death and marriages. And we tend to go overboard with all of them. You hear ‘Bridezilla’ stories, you see the paparazzi frenzy over celebrity baby pictures, and when it comes to death, we see people at their best or worst.” And because of this obsession Murray says, “Sometimes the media creates a demand for celebrity death coverage that plays into the insatiable appetites of these fans, and that appetite can be overzealous.”
9) Death always triggers our own fears about loss. Most of us dislike change of any kind and death narrows the choices considerably. Also triggered by this loss are our own personal beliefs about whether life is eternal, whether there is a heaven or hell and whether we are more than biological beings. Those without an abiding philosophical or spiritual perspective on what happens after death may experience a crisis of finality.
On one side of the equation is seems odd that approximately 25,000 children around the world died of starvation today, yet Twitter and Facebook are flooded with R.I.P.s for a man who took his own life. But the world we live in, the technology that surrounds us, has changed much of the way we connect, relate and engage with one another. So naturally how we see death and mourn is changing as well.
I grew up watching Robin Williams in Mork & Mindy. I laughed watching him in Mrs. Doubtfire and The Birdcage, I thought deeply about his charactor in Good Will Hunting and The Dead Poets Society, and I grimaced at his involvement with Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Out of a lifetime of inspired statements and jokes one stands out when he said, “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
No, I didn’t know him at all but what I thought I saw was a person who was amazingly creative, outrageously funny, and downright special. Of course, maybe in the end it is SMART to remember that we are all special just because we are uniquely ourselves, and because of Robin Williams, today is a good day to remember just that.