Mass public outpouring of grief for the deaths of the famous has become a feature of the times; the latest to be mourned is Paul Walker. The “Where were you when you heard?” question is most often attributed to the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, but it has become linked to other, most often shocking, demises. The death of Princess Diana in 1997 seemed to unlock a kind of permissible hysteria which has become the norm. People freely express volumes of sadness, tears and personal torment at the passing of some person they never knew, and were never likely to meet.
Separation and loss are the hardest of all emotions to deal with, and can be the trigger for terrible anxiety and depression. Loved ones and those closest are so precious, it is agonizing to face life without them. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her classic work on grief, On Death and Dying described five stages of the grieving process. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, but they do not occur in specific order. Nowadays, there is more opportunity than ever to feel affinity and fondness for public figures, as they appear in living rooms on screens and share their own private lives on their own platforms.
In the 21st century, says David Kessler, another expert in grief and co-author of On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages, Facebook is the new town square, and people gather there to share their feelings, and more importantly, to bear witness.
Some commentators suspect that anyone who takes a place in someone’s life, albeit vicariously, represent the loss of part of that self when that person passes. This is more true if that person has a part of in someone’s developing years and became part of growing up. In the same way as a specific song can evoke memories of a certain day or moment, a public person can be tied to individual experience. Thus, argues, Dr Alan Hilfer of Maimonides Medical Center in New York, that person exists “in emotional proximity” to another, and this applies even when the latter had never met the former, nor were likely to.
Therefore, any girl who had a teenage crush on Paul Walker, with his extreme good looks, is liable to feel the way she would if her real-life first boyfriend had passed away.
Every life is unique, and every death is a reminder of human frailty. Kessler thinks that the need to share grief is predicated on the belief that every life really matters. If people do not gather and share, they run the risk of not being assured that when they die, their lives will matter too. This is the primal core of grief.
Paul Walker was a star, but perhaps not on the scale of a Michael Jackson, a Nelson Mandela or a Steve Jobs. All of these deaths also drew phenomenal response from a worldwide collection of mourners. When they have made a massive contribution to humanity in their lifetime, it is certain they will pass into the annals of immortality. Thus, even such a controversial figure as Margaret Thatcher drew enormous crowds for her funeral. Paul Walker had made serious and committed steps towards helping others in distress with his charitable works, but this is not what he is being remembered for. The focus is on the films he made, based on driving fast cars, and the irony that he died in a high-speed car accident. He was young and attractive and his death was tragic. These three factors, explains John D. Moore, author of Confusing Love with Obsession, increase the interest in the death of a celebrity.
Princess Diana was also young and attractive and died in a tragic car crash, but her death occurred before the explosion in social media, which has allowed mass sharing of communal feeling. Instead, people came out in droves to place flowers at her home, to throng the streets and to attempt to share their numb sensations of loss with others. Outside the closed doors of Westminster Abbey, the masses broke into spontaneous applause at the end of her brother’s broadcasted eulogy. In an unprecedented event in British public life, the congregation inside the Abbey then heard the noise, described as a “distant shower of rain” which “rolled towards us” and joined in.
Previous to this, deep silence was the attitude adopted by mourners, when a well-known person was being honored at a funeral service. When Winston Churchill was sent off 32 years previous, the ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral was said to be marked by “extraordinary silence” which could not be broken either by “the bands or the rhythmic feet.” Despite the pomp and the huge crowds, noise was not the response. Now, people do nothing but talk. In many countries, Paul Walker’s sad death was the most discussed and searched for topic on Google in 2013, even though it happened towards the close of the year.
En-masse mourning was also very much on display during the week-long lamentations for former South African President Nelson Mandela. The global tsunami of emotion was recast to some extent as a celebration of the great man’s considerable achievements and his legacy. History does not produce figures like Mandela very often. It is rare to be commemorating the life of someone who actually changed the world. When Steve Jobs died, although he was no statesman, entertainer or idealist, the fact that so many people owned devices he had created made them feel a connection to him.
Clinical Psychologist Steven Myers says research proves that people form significant attachments to public figures they have never met. In Job’s case, this was no doubt the effect of his products. In Walker’s case, it is presumably the enjoyment of his movies. The importance of talking and exploring the life and legacy of Paul Walker is helping many millions to deal with their feelings. Whether it is a handsome movie star, a princess or a politician, people need to grieve, and it is arguable that today’s media allows more access to a helpful healing process.
By Kate Henderson