As soon as the news broke that Robin Williams had died at the age of 63, of an apparent suicide, the Internet filled with “RIP” Tweets, clips of Williams’ best stand-up routines, and anecdotes about what the star had meant to this or that person. (I joined in too, remembering how vivid Williams had seemed to me as a kid.) Almost as quickly, though, came a barrage of criticism of the collective outpouring. Politico chided that the flood of posts “makes death feel cheap.” The London Evening Standard warned, “Let’s not reduce human tragedy to a retweet.” Medium complained that we instantaneously transformed Williams from a talent who’d made mediocre work of late to “some sort of angel who influenced us all in profound, eternal ways.” And all this was over a person most of us had “never met,” Politico said.
To its critics, collective mourning—which over the past decade has increasingly become part of our lives on and offline—epitomizes the narcissistic “me-too” shallows of our media culture at its worst, not to mention a tawdry preoccupation with celebrity. It’s not hard to understand their discomfort. I used to be a public grief scold, too. During the televised spectacle of Diana’s funeral, in 1997, I found myself revolted by what I took to be the crowd’s crocodile tears, and by network TV’s crass, emotionally manipulative commentary. Why weep over a person you never knew? In the face of death’s gravity, it feels only right to militate against trivial or scripted performances of sorrow.
But this knee-jerk discomfort fails to take into account the deeper role that collective mourning—even the hasty, mediated sort found on Facebook and Twitter—plays in our lives.
Historically, grief always had a communal element. Until the early twentieth century, private loss and public mourning went hand in hand in the West. Someone died, and the village came to your door with warm food. They stayed to sit shiva or share stories during the at-home wake, paying their respects, supporting the mourners, coming to the funeral. Mourners wore black or a torn ribbon partly so that the community would continue to recognize their loss. Even death was public: The dying speaker in Emily Dickinson’s famous poem “I heard a Fly buzz — when I died” is surrounded by people waiting to bear witness to death. But around the First World War, notes the British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, Western mourning practices changed, partly because the sheer numbers of dead made it hard to properly mourn all those who had passed, and partly because psychoanalysis was placing new emphasis on the internal aspects of grief.
Soon Americans came to view grief as a private and a psychological function rather than as a communal one. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “stage theory” of grief, with its emphasis on tidily achieving “acceptance,” became our script for mourning. Death began to take place in the remote hospital, instead of at home; wakes were outsourced to funeral homes; and children lived longer, making sudden death more unusual. As American culture grew more secular (and death more frightening), grief began to seem unseemly, something to “muscle through” or “get over.” By the 1960s, Gorer explains, most people had come to believe that “sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as … masturbation.”
The result is that many mourners in America today feel that there is something wrong with them—that their sorrow is somehow a sign of depression or failure to grieve “correctly,” mainly because they have so little support from the culture around them, and because grief has increasingly come to seem like a mental illness rather than an essential and meaningful human experience. Indeed, in the recent DSM-5 (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), grief can be categorized as a "major depressive disorder" as early as two weeks after a loss.
But what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with lamenting the death of a person we hardly knew? When we mourn public figures, we are also mourning ourselves. As the psychoanalyst Darian Leader points out, in The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression, “public mourning is there in order to allow private mourning to express itself.” When those around us are also grieving, we feel permitted to express a sense of loss we have no other collective outlet for; our loss can be recognized as a central fact of human experience rather than silenced or sublimated. It’s an old phenomenon: In The Iliad, when Achilles mourns for Patroclus (“I am sick with longing!”), Homer tells us that “the warlords mourned in answer, each remembering those he had left behind at home.”
Each death that elicits this kind of mass response is tapping into something deep inside us: Perhaps it reminds us of human fallibility, that the fixed lights in our world really are impermanent. Or it touches us closer to home—reminding you of your own struggle with depression, or of a sister’s struggle with addiction. After all, genius seems larger than life, and when we’re reminded it isn’t—when it dims too soon, as it so often does—we mourn the wasted talent. Cynicism about the fact that we didn’t know the person who died, as Leader says, “totally misses the point.” So does cynicism about the fact that we are idealizing the dead; in death, we always idealize, at least briefly. That impulse has led to brilliant elegiac music and poetry and art (“In Memoriam,” “Lycidas,” the death masks of Ancient Egypt) as well as to breathless Twitter posts.
In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ tragic death, we mourned the part of ourselves that identified with him, pained that this comedic talent—so fantastically able to make us laugh, so antic in his imitations—would have succumbed to depression. Similarly, Steve Jobs’ death made us realize that the avatars of our brand new world of laptops and iPods were getting old—like us, they are surprisingly mortal. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was a hard reminder of how unstable life in “recovery” from addiction really is. Just as the soldiers gathered around Patroclus’s body were not trying to “out-sad” Achilles, but to share in his grief, so, too, many on social media were stirred to grieve together.
But there is another side, too: In our highly mediated age, we really do have relationships with the artists and performers whose work has shaped our own lives. We may not have known Robin Williams personally, but his gifts elicited deep emotional responses in us. So it is not surprising (or crude) that in the wake of his passing, his work evokes a genuine sense of loss, or that people want to pay their virtual respects. This is what culture means after all: A shared set of experiences that go beyond our private lives that nonetheless inflect our sense of self and mold the way we relate to our own personal history.
Clearly, the discomfort on display last week was shaped in part by an unarticulated discomfort with celebrity and the media’s role in valorizing that celebrity. Few of us would argue that the estimated one million people who lined up to watch RFK’s funeral train pass in 1968 were somehow “competitive” or hypocritical in their grief. Instead, we celebrate that outpouring and mass demonstration as an iconic moment in American history, one where the masses came out to pay respects to a man who had given them hope. But it feels radically different when the person who is being mourned is a celebrity and when the site of the mourning is Facebook. And social media certainly make it easier to spot the lunkheads. Take, for example, the guy who thought the singer “Robbie Williams” had died, and felt moved to tweet, "Just found out Robbie Williams is dead, he wasn't the best rapper and I wasn't into his music but he seemed ok RIP.”
Interestingly enough, though, social media like Facebook and Twitter have actually helped restore aspects of both communal mourning, returning it to its messier form, complicating the usual saccharine TV scripts. And while Facebook may seem an odd place to reflect on death that’s closer to home, recent studies of mourning online suggest that it does, in fact, “aid” the grieving process in some ways. In the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech and 2008 Northern Illinois shootings, one study found, many students experienced temporary relief and comfort in Facebook groups. Another study, by a grief expert at Columbia, found that the Internet provides a space for mourners to “share their emotions freely and in a way that potentially ameliorates the risk of burdening…offline relationships.”
The real issue at stake is not whether collective mourning is sometimes cheap, but what we would lose without it. To me, the outpouring suggests a deep hunger for collective conversation about the grave reality of death and its mysterious alteration of our lives. Dylan Byers of Politico is right when he complains that on Facebook one minute it’s Williams, and the next, say, it’s the posting of a delicious new taco recipe. But that’s life. Grief is one side of the coin, and pleasure—even the banal pleasures of everyday life—is the other. When my mother was dying at home, one of the very last things we all did together as a family was gather round her hospital bed to watch Robin Williams in “The Birdcage,” which made her laugh, even though she could no longer speak. The next day she slipped into a coma. It’s memories like these that in turn move us collectively to mourn Williams.
Meghan O’Rourke, a poet and essayist, is the author of The Long Goodbye, a study of grief in America and how we mourn today. She is at work on a book about the mysterious rise of chronic illness in the U.S.