The hard hits are rolling fresh and early this year when it comes to the passing of entertainment icons. For the generation that is so often referred to as Millennial, the impactful death of actors, writers, comedians, directors and figure heads from our childhood is still a new, sharp, and painful feeling. With the death of Leonard Nimoy, fans of all ages came together to express their sadness in ways that they couldn't when other Star Trek greats, including creator Gene Roddenberry, passed away.
Now, fans can come together in comment sections, on Skype, and in the real world for support and celebration of the amazing voices that impacted them so heavily. While it sounds wonderful, there's been a public outcry running for years against the disconnection perceived by others when mourning celebrities on with a hashtag.
But Why Do We Mourn Famous People?
Last week, buried within a sea of sad Facebook posts - evidently, I'm friends with a lot of Star Trek fans - a friend expressed annoyance at the reaction to Nimoy's passing. "You people act like you knew the dude," he wrote. In a sense, a lot of us don't know the public figures that we mourn - we're not part of their family (save for Nimoy, who decided to take on the role of the world's honorary Grandpa) and many of us have never shared a personal experience with our idols.
There are two primary ways to look at, and essentially feel about celebrity deaths in the hands of the social media-charged public: as a community joining together to celebrate the life of someone they admired, or a group of people who are completely obsessed with the mysteries of death.
We're Obsessed with Death
Let's get the negative out of the way first: according to journalist John Murray, our obsession with celebrity culture can get grim.
"There are three topics that Americans are fascinated with," he told HLN. "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."
What's more, with the rise of social media, hoaxes and death scares have become much more common than they used to be:
"We're so quick to pull out the black veil and tissues. Social media, in addition to giving everybody this place to mourn, it has also killed off countless personalities who are, in fact, still alive."
Entertainment media is a major culprit when it comes to these situations. When celebrities die, headlines run for weeks. If Vin Diesel so much as thinks about Paul Walker, for example, entertainment sites will scramble to push out a sympathetic headline, because a cultural demand for the exploration of death drives traffic. In a way, it's two negatives joining together to become an even greater (objectively, at least) negative.
Or: They Genuinely Impact Us
When interviewed about the superficiality of mourning a celebrity's passing, Newsday's Joel Mathis had this to say:
It's easy to sneer at Americans' celebrity obsessions. If People magazine, TMZ, or US Weekly disappeared from the earth, many of us would feel no small measure of satisfaction.
But count me among the millions who posted "RIP Robin Williams" to Facebook and Twitter this week upon learning of the actor-comedian's death. Silly? Superficial? Possibly. But here's the thing: Robin Williams wasn't just a celebrity - not just somebody known to us through the tabloids and gossip columns: He was an artist.
Regardless of the obsessive or negative culture that shock sites thrive off of, fans are still human, and can still feel a genuine sense of loss when a public figure that impacted them so heavily passes away.
The outpour of emotion at the loss of Robin Williams last year was massive. Williams died abruptly, of causes that were not natural, and the world was not prepared. Arguably, the actor inspired generations of people with his comedy, kindness and his open, honest attitude toward his personal problems. When he wasn't reassuring us of our self-worth as Mrs. Doubtfire or leading us through a wild jungle in Jumanji, Williams was here in real life, telling those of us that suffer from these problems that we weren't alone. It is hard to argue that he did not touch the lives of many without ever truly meeting them, and the raw emotion of this loss pans out even to this day.
Artists, musicians, actors and creators serve as inspiration for us in several ways: the characters they play can impact us, make us feel as though we're not alone in our problems, and inspire us to become more. Much like losing a mentor, when celebrities pass, we feel as though that piece of us has disappeared - and so we mourn, we create memorials in our hearts or on websites and billboards, so that we can preserve the memories we had (but didn't technically physically share) with our favorite artists.
Social Media, the Emotional Safety Net
Within fanbases, community means strength. A loud and united fan base can pull a show out from cancellation hell, bring a character back to life, and cause actual, social change if it is strong enough. But fandom is much more than this in an age where it's a click away: we are now directly connected to fans who share the same interests as us, and folks who feel the same way. This isn't an awkward connection with relatives when a family figurehead dies - it's a coming together of passionate people who feel united because of the mark that these celebrities have made on their personal growth.
“Psychological research shows that people can form significant attachments to celebrities or public figures they’ve never met,” Steven Meyers, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Roosevelt University told the Huffington Post in 2011.
A few years later, David Kaplan, Ph.D., chief professional officer of the American Counseling Association, elaborated on how we handle celebrity death on social media:
"We are social creatures, we are meant to be with other people when we face adversity," Kaplan said. "That's going to mean different things for different generations. It may mean physically being with people ... or it could also extend to online. You can get hundreds of people saying, 'I know what you're going through.' And that's very healing for us."
Connecting with other fans and sharing that mutual feeling not only makes grieving easier to deal with - it empowers and strengthens communities to do something great.
In response to Nimoy's passing, fans and fellow celebrities have gone above and beyond to celebrate his life rather than mourn: players of the Star Trek Online game came together on the in-game planet of Vulcan to salute Nimoy, and others took out a billboard in Atlanta in his memory.
Nimoy's long-time friend and Star Trek co-star, William Shatner, was incredibly distraught about not making Nimoy's funeral (Shatner chose to attend a charity event instead - something that this author believes the caring Nimoy would have wanted, anyway) and decided to hold a "twitter memorial" for the actor.
Over time, grief turned in to a celebration of Nimoy's life, and fans shared their stories of how he affected their lives. Worldwide fans blogged about how Spock's personal trials reflected on the pains they felt growing up, the challenges of being a teenager, and even the effect he had on LGBT fans who needed someone to look to for confidence.
At the end of the day, Nimoy's positive influence and undeniable spirit united people from all around the world who were reminded, once more, of those special moments and memories that helped them become who they are.
Does Social Media Help?
Another fantastic excerpt from The Atlantic's piece on grief via social media includes wide words from media psychologist Jerri Hogg:
Hogg describes social media as “just the new current tool that connects us with friends and family,” rather than a new behavior. “Is it good? Is it bad?” she asked. “No, I think it is just different. The primary drivers for the behavior haven't changed. We need to adjust to the new normal.”
It's not a stretch to say that we are culturally fascinated with death, but the light in the darkness is what happens when these tragedies bring us together. A celebration of a long, prosperous and charitable life can serve to remind us that life is precious, but what they do for us as fans is bring us together as a group. We are reminded once more that we are not alone, and that we are not wrong for feeling as though we have lost someone important.