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Why Do We Personalize Celebrity Deaths?

By Courtney Enlow | Think Pieces | August 14, 2014 | Comments ()


Robin-Williams.-006.jpg

Without fail, the deaths of the rich and famous bring out the best and worst in all of us. For some, we celebrate and honor and look inward. For others, we tear down and denigrate and write off as meaningless, disparaging those who dare feel feelings of any kind about something so frivolous as the death of a stranger.

Maybe no one’s right. Maybe no one’s wrong. I don’t really care. I just know that, sometimes, these hurt. These really hurt. And I’m not sure there’s any rhyme or reason why.

I do know that three things seem to make certain deaths seem bigger than others: age, manner of death and amount of impact had on people while in this mortal coil, be it nostalgic, talent-based or otherwise or a combination of all of it. So when that person is Robin Williams, someone who mattered in some way to almost every one of us, who still had time and who took himself out of the picture, destroyed by one ugly fucking illness, it hurts. It hurts bad.

If you’re reading this site at all, pop culture matters to you. Movies matter, these people, these performers, they matter to you. They’ve changed and affected and given you life when real life couldn’t. These people are important to us. And when we lose them, we feel that loss, just like we would a “real” friend. Maybe even more. Such is the power of art and performance and comedy and all the wonderful things Williams gave us. Such is the power of his loss.

But there’s more, too. Because on top of the pain of losing someone who mattered, someone you no doubt spent at least a few hours with in one way or another, and in a world where every paparazzi photo on the street is completely staged and planned and fake, death is the realest thing. It’s the one thing even the most rich and powerful person can’t avoid. And when whatever killed them is something that could kill you too? That’s goddamn terrifying.

You may have noticed, or maybe you haven’t and I’ve greatly overshot in terms of how much time you spend thinking of me, but regardless, I haven’t been around as much over the past few months. Part of this is real-life job stuff. That’s what I tell myself, and it’s what I’ve told Dustin. But I know and I know he knows that’s not the whole story. The whole story is that I’ve been struggling, guys. For a while now. Two of the big demons that haunted Williams’ life—addiction (not my own) and mental illness (not my own and my own)—have fucked my life this year. And even though things are better and everything is ostensibly OK, I haven’t been able to figure out how to move forward. I haven’t been able to pick up my own pieces and no one else has been able to pick them up for me. I’ve just been sad. At one point, I actually Googled “can you be hospitalized for being too sad” because that’s how I felt. Too sad to function. And just in the last few weeks have I started to feel like myself again, like I can breathe, like the surface is a place I can keep hold for more than a few moments at a time.

But if these things could destroy Williams, they could destroy us.

Life, mere existence is a fragile thing. No matter how stable we feel, at any time the thread that holds us together could be cut and everything could be lost in an instant. It doesn’t matter how much we have, how much we are loved, how much or how little or how anything. Life is the least stable substance on the planet. It’s fucking weird and sad and scary and stupid and wonderful and so many other things and nothing at all. And when we lose someone like Williams, someone who though we never really knew had a profound effect on our entire beings, that string begins to look awfully frayed.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Driver Decade

    Some of the more significant events would be near-deaths - they almost bought it. But yes, we personalize celebrity deaths because we make them symbols of ourselves. Perhaps to levels that are inappropriate.

  • Sigh.

    I've already responded once, perfunctorially (is that a word? No bother), but like every other Courtney post, this has been bouncing around my head ever since I saw it.

    ...and I'm no closer to the perfect response than when I first saw it. Would that there was one, there would be so much less sadness in the world. The only "solution," as you know, is to bring it out into the light, which you somehow just keep doing.

    You're a pretty bravecool chick, Courtney.

  • I've been very much not okay since hearing about Williams' death on Monday night. I think the reason for this (besides the general place he held in our shared pop culture lives) is that it brings into painful clarity that the struggle with depression comes from a place where love and success don't weigh as much as you might expect, or hope. The fear of the beast is back, at least for me.

    Thank you for writing so eloquently about the subject again and again Courtney. I hope that you remain able to arm yourself to fight the beast, and that you and your loved ones are victorious.

  • Lovely piece. It really helps to read these types of posts with do much heart. Sorry you are struggling. I'm going through a breakup, moving away from home (3 hours including a ferry ride) and can't seem to find a place to rent. Some time periods are harder than others but usually things even out and get better a while. Let's hope.

  • Magiel

    Yesh, missed you :-)

    And hugs!

  • Berry

    I wish I could give you something like you've given me laughter over the years. But I only have my compassion and a wish that things work out for you and yours, so please accept those.

  • Uriah_Creep

    It's no secret that I'm a big fan of yours, Courtney. And, as it happens, I've suffered from the same depression and addiction problems. I've been fortunate that my doctor and I, after trying for many years, eventually found medication that made my life so much better, and that I'm surrounded by a loving family and friends. Still, there were times when I just wanted to get away from everybody because depression does this thing where it absolutely, positively convinces you that nothing will ever be OK again, so there's no use trying.

    I know that it doesn't always help as much as it should, but know that you are much-loved here. I hope you and your family find the peace you deserve.

  • Wigamer

    Loving an addicted person is one of the hardest things anyone can do. Just keep doing your best, whatever that looks like from moment to moment. And take care of yourself. You're pretty amazing.

  • Emperor Cupcake

    If it helps at all, know that I think you're an incredibly talented writer. I always read your pieces on this site, and I'm consistently impressed with both your writing and your candor.

  • Pretty amazing writing, Courtney. As always.

  • foolsage

    I appreciate what you do here, because you approach universal problems with a very real humanity and compassion that makes them accessible. Also, you're a damned nice person, from what I can tell, and I appreciate that as well.

    Be well. You're not alone.

  • Ryan States

    I do notice when you aren't around as much, and, I'm sorry to say, I assumed the reasons why. You could not more clearly be one of my tribe, and I've been hoping that the clouds lifted for you and yours.

    Robin Williams' death hit me hard too, because, well, first of all he was wonderful. Also though, because he too was clearly of my tribe. I think you could tell there was a genuinely open heart there, and a genuinely sad one.

    Celebrities mean things to us for the glimpses of their real selves we see, but also because of what they come to represent.

    To me, he represented the way in which artists can use pain to fuel joy, and he represented my tribe out there in the world. Losing him does feel like losing a friend, and a little hope.

    As I've said before, and as others are telling you here, you make a difference, and you have people in your corner who love you and wish you so much happiness.

    And it's sad and scary that we can know this, as he must have known this, and it can still not be enough.

    Much love.

  • Derreck

    As a dude who works in a mental health care facility and sees a great deal of clients, i can safely say that depression is most definitely a real thing and can happen to anyone. It's hard to get out of that cloud when you honestly can't see past that. It coats everything and everyone around you. There's nothing wrong in seeking help because sometimes, you just need a kind hand to guide you out of the darkness.

    Plus, I don't criticise anyone who feels grief over a celebrity they have never met. Because you've never met them or care for them, it doesn't mean that they haven't touched or made an impact to someone in some way. Me? If I wake up one day and hear that Nicole Kidman committed suicide or just plain died, i'm honestly not getting out of bed. She's that one celebrity that i truly adore. Whether it's just looking at her being beautiful or watching her as an actress (so underrated) or even listening to the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (probably my favorite movie of all time), she's that one that would hurt me when she passes. Robin Williams must've been that for many, many people.

  • Cheetahdriver

    At the risk of being that guy, there are now 15 articles on Robin Williams death on this site, and there is a one line mention of Lauren Bacall in a Pajiba Love article. I loved and enjoyed all of Robin Williams work, but seriously? An actor I never heard of ( J.J. Murphy, who I am sure was a good guy) gets an article because he dies after being cast on GofT and the co-star of "To Have and Have Not" gets a one liner?

  • I've already been that guy so that burden, at least, is lifted off of you. I think it has a lot to do with the goldfish memory of pop culture in general and I'd be lying if I said I didn't think there was a certain bandwagon element there too.

  • Mrs. Julien

    If I may, when people of her generation die, there is sadness, but there is also a sense of "he/she had a good run"; in fact, Mr. Julien and I say that out loud usually. It's not that we don't care, it's that it doesn't seem unfair or surprising for Bacall to have died. I was genuinely sad when Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Peter O'Toole died because their work meant a lot to me, but they each had a good run.

  • foolsage

    I don't mean to be insensitive, but Lauren Bacall was an actress that appealed largely to previous generations; not because of her skill or anything like that, but because of the chronology of her life. I wasn't even alive when she starred in her most famous roles, and I'm hardly young.

    Robin Williams had a lot more interaction with, and presence in, popular culture in the last 20 years than Lauren Bacall; vastly more. Also, the reason for his death is itself an issue of interest in popular culture, so it's fitting to discuss that.

  • Idle Primate

    a retrospective on Lauren Bacall and tribute to her life would be nice, but I also recognise why Robin Williams' death has attracted a great deal of attention and reflection

  • JenVegas

    I'm sorry you're feeling so sad Courtney. I've felt that way and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. About 10 years ago I was just sad. So so so sad. Maybe depressed, I don't know. There were like 6 million teeny tiny reasons that I could find to feel sad throughout a day, none of which amounted to much and none that I can even recall with any distinction now (although I do think there was something about me not knowing how to pluck my own eyebrows that really f'ed my up for a while. Shut up, we can't chose these things.) I spent maaaaybe 2 months sleeping on the couch in our living room during the day. And I would stay up all night starring at the TV or creepily watching my roommate and his girlfriend enjoy themselves in another room. Someone finally said "dude, get a grip. Here go see my therapist." And I went, I sat down and this nice, friendly and plump little lady smiled at me and said "so what's the matter?" And i just started bawling. I cried for 15 minutes before I could even talk.
    Everything got better, as the saying goes but I'll never forget that rottenest period of time and I feel ALL OF THE FEELS for people who aren't able to pull themselves out of those states. And also I think I'm lucky that I could do it. So, I hope you are feeling better (whatever that means to you) soon. And keep writing and sharing. We love you!

  • damnitjanet

    Court, you are such an amazing person, and you know we are always in your corner. Thank you for your honesty, and for expressing what so many of us are feeling.

  • BendinIntheWind

    I can personally say that your writings have had a profound effect on my life, for the better. As someone who only recently (past few years or so) began to struggle with depression and couldn't really understand what it was doing to me, your posts have provided a lot of perspective.

    You're a stranger to me, but you've touched my life in a way I can't really verbalize. And in the end, I don't really need to. I guess you're my Robin Williams.

  • amanda

    Courtney, you're one of my all time favorites. You're up there with Michael K, and I love him more dearly than most members of my family. I've struggled with depression my whole life, and it's the worst. But it helps to know that you're not alone and that people care. And I'm sure you're going to find that a lot of total strangers here on Pajiba care! Plus we love it when you liveblog the 90's.

  • Zen

    Oh, Michael K. I love to giggle in his corner of the internet.

  • BendinIntheWind

    Take care of yourself, Court. We love you.

  • Legally Insignificant

    Going off of this idea, celebrities' personalities are bigger-than-normal, so when they die, their deaths have a bigger-than-normal effect. If it's an "unnatural" death, it raises awareness of that issue in a way that the death of non-celebrity would not.

  • Miss Kate

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Your eloquence in writing about your personal struggle is inspiring, and I hope you find the strength you need to cope and be well.
    (My mother suffered from depression, HER mother was bipolar, and no one in my family ever really spoke of it. They should have.)
    Take care of yourself. It's a struggle, but know that people are here to support you.

  • lillie

    I've noticed you haven't been around quite as much because I seek your articles out. Your sense of humor is incredible and your articles, even the very serious ones, always brighten my day. Not to mention live blogging the 90's is seriously the funniest shit I've ever read on the Internet. I have a few very close friends who don't read Pajiba who I always share them with. We always have a good laugh reading them as we are transported back to our teendom when those movies seemed so cool (I wish Teen Witch was a 90's movie but, though I'm too lazy to Google it right now, I believe it was in the 80's...exceptions should be made for that gem of a flick) Anyway, I hope things get better for you. Take care of you and yours.

  • poopnado

    Feel better, dude. I too have been sad. I don't know when being really sad for a really long time becomes depression, but whatever label you put on it, it sucks. It just really sucks. But we appreciate your writing here. Do what you need to do and come back and say hi sometimes please.

  • Mrs. Julien

    The boldness and bravery of the writers on Pajiba never ceases to amaze me. I can barely bring myself to say "I'm really unhappy" writing under a pseudonym and here you are every time speaking honestly about yourself and your experiences. You are amazing. I hope it gives you relief and strength to talk about it. I hope we give you relief and strength with our attempts at being supportive. Everybody's life looks perfect on Facebook. Everybody struggles.

    As for our reactions to celebrity deaths, I think that certain people defy distance and enter our realm of personal experience so deeply that losing them can be like losing a friend and there is comfort in knowing that person was someone else's distant friend, too.

  • emmalita

    Yes, I have noticed you haven't been around as much, and yes I have wondered. You've written beautifully about addiction and mental illness. I have this on going fantasy that if I can just describe what depression is well enough, it will go away. I am constantly surprised to find that it doesn't happen. I wish it worked that way. If it did, you would be on easy street.

    You do what you need to do to take care of yourself. Even those of us who are not your close personal Internet friends care.

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