Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When the news broke on February 2nd, 2014 that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, I had just ended a Media Center shift and was about to head back to my dorm for the night. I immediately messaged a few friends — I can’t believe it, an awful loss for his family, what will happen with The Hunger Games? I drafted a few tweets, but sent none — I retweeted other people’s more elegant summations of grief, since I didn’t think I felt anything particularly special.
My response was much less collected when my father died two days later. I was in Philadelphia with a class when I heard the news and cried on the van ride home, not speaking to any of my classmates. When I got back to campus, I went to a friend’s room and talked about something else for a few hours. By the next night I was home in Arizona. I made a single post on social media about my father — informing my Facebook friends that he was gone and that I would be away from campus for two weeks. I thanked everyone for their support and ignored the influx of condolences, not knowing what I was supposed to say.
The recent deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers have made me think about mourning again. The outpouring of grief after the news of both Williams’ and Rivers’ passings was huge. After hearing the news about Williams from a friend, I spent more than an hour on Twitter sifting through other people’s memories. Anecdotes from fellow comedians, quotes from Dead Poets Society, clips of favorite stand up acts. I added my own small remembrance to the pile, tweeting that I “rarely say much after celebrity deaths, since it seems like shouting into the void, but this is a huge loss. I grew up laughing at Williams.” Memories of watching Mrs. Doubtfire on cable for the tenth time were on my mind.
The mourning of famous figures has become a very public affair, particularly since the advent of social media. Most of us find out about these deaths and share our reactions through Twitter or Facebook. Many of the tweets reacting to Williams’ death went viral: the Academy’s “Genie, you’re free” tweet was retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and Reddit posts recalling encounters with him were shared far and wide. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to share who their Robin Williams had been.
Even before the onslaught of web-based grieving, mourning the death of a celebrity felt like a group activity. When Heath Ledger passed (an event that I now think of as the first “major” death of our generation), my friends and I organized a marathon of our favorite Ledger movies. We celebrated this man’s life by engaging with the only part of it we really knew: 10 Things I Hate About You, A Knight’s Tale, The Brothers Grimm. Mourning was another social event for us.
Mourning for my father was, unsurprisingly, very different. Aside from his memorial, where my mother, sister, myself, and 100 people who loved him gathered together to remember him, there was not a lot of collective sadness. I did not gather my friends together to share stories and really only talked about it (haltingly) with my mother.
Losing someone close to me was (and is) a very lonely process. I still rarely talk about it with others — when people express their condolences, I thank them (“thanks” no longer catches in my throat, though I still think it’s the wrong response) but I am deeply uncomfortable when people try and discuss it with me. In my first week back on campus, people kept approaching me in the dining hall or before class to ask how I was or how my mother was doing, and I never knew what to say. My relationship with my father when he was alive was something I always talked about — intentionally and not, he was very funny — but now I hesitate to bring it up. I am convinced no one wants to hear about a dead man they never knew. Aside from providing rides or appearing at school plays, he never really impacted the lives of my peers.
The loss of a public figure, on the other hand, leaves a wide wound. Future viewings of Aladdin or Good Will Hunting will now inevitably be accompanied by an “it’s too bad” and a sigh for as long as Williams remains at the front of the public consciousness. But he will not rush into my mind when I see the label on a piece of tupperware or watch any movie with Jon Favreau.
A recent New York Magazine piece said that unlike “real-life mourning,” the loss of a celebrity comes with no “social support,” but in my experience it’s been just the opposite. Mourning a public figure is, in my mind, the most socially acceptable form of sadness. We all know the same Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers, so there is a uniformity to our grief. It’s only natural that people want to come together in this way: sharing sadness with millions of others isn’t possible when mourning someone you really knew. Now each time I watch these outpourings of grief, I find myself wishing these sorts of public rituals were possible for more personal losses.
Featured image courtesy of http://www.ghostlyactivities.com