When a public figure dies and people mourn and grieve, there are no doubt others who think (and probably say, given an opportunity), “What are you mourning for? You didn’t know the person,” and go on to question the validity of strangers acting bereaved over someone they never met. As someone who has been affected by several deaths of public personalities in my lifetime, I’ve considered this point and want to try to answer it.
In some cases, I’m sure there are people who have idealized the person who died and even felt as if they had a relationship with the deceased. There may be those too, who get “caught up” in the public outpouring of emotions. Still others may overreact because the death elicited feelings related to things occurring in their own life. People could also overreach in an attempt to draw personal meaning where little exists.
I feel pretty confident these thoughts don’t describe how I’ve felt or my own impetus to grieve. Instead, my sense of loss – and I’m sure this is true for so many – has stemmed from my deep appreciation for what a public person has given and I personally received. I have such gratitude for people who make me laugh, think, or feel; who introduce me to a new idea, teach me something useful, share their lives, give me music, stimulate my mind, make me feel hopeful, or even move me to tears. I don’t care who’s doing it, whether I know them in real life or not.
In fact, like most people, I don’t know any celebrities or public figures, but I can avail myself of their words, ideas and visions in books, on TV, in movies, on CDs, on stages, and online. I am made better for it and that’s been true all my life. I’m not suggesting one is as good as the next; as I do in my life, I respond to individuals.
When public people die, particularly when it seems unfair or premature or somehow otherwise wrong, in part my sadness is for them, driven by empathy, feeling that they deserved better. The empathy extends to the people who loved them, especially when they too are in the public eye. It equally reflects my sorrow at the loss of the pleasure I got from their existence. How they made my life just a bit, and sometimes a lot, better.
Then too, it’s possible to be caught unawares, whether you’ve literally known a person or not, by the magnitude of feeling at a particular death. Speculate away, but it is hard to truly know in advance exactly how any death will impact you. Harder still to know what direction it may come from next.
[I’ve written more on this topic here]