Social media sites are often home base for the banal. Scrolling through Facebook often seems, in essence, a search for triviality. And yet, amid the identity quiz results and hackneyed news article links, we are occasionally reminded of the consequential, arrested by an unexpected serious artifact that jolts us back into a sober reality. Sometimes it’s the announcement of a brand new baby. Sometimes it’s a devastating headline.
Most of us, unfortunately, have lately been surrounded by social-media news of tremendous weight: the riots in Ferguson, the persecution of Christians in Iraq, and, yes, even the loss of popular celebrities. And while the loss of a single person—one not known personally by most social-media users—may have seemed disproportionately represented by our Twitter feeds and Facebook shares in light of the many ongoing world conflicts, how we grieve collectively for our celebrities tells us something important about our shared humanity.
When we share stories, even through hashtags, we honor that instinct God created in us, the need to come together under a common narrative.It’s easy to assume that the same crowd grappling for autographs and clustering around backstage doors—the rabid fans, the ones merely wanting to touch or glimpse fame—are the ones who to take to social media when a celebrity dies, ostensibly to feign sorrow and mock those who actually knew the person as—well—an actual person. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, it’s hard to take seriously grief fitted to 140 characters and summed up in a hashtag. After all, the overwhelming majority of us know actors and musicians only as superstars, people who are paid to present a façade to society.
This seemingly artificial mourning is an easy target for our scorn. But we fool ourselves if we think we can engage in popular culture without investing some kind of emotion in its major players. Celebrities have shortcomings, of course. We are only too aware of that lately. But there is merit in what they do because it enables us to connect with one another in fresh ways, to give us communal experiences, to help us identify with each other. When we lose one, we lose a significant cultural leader. It is right to feel that loss, and it is right to stand in the community that that artist created, to remember together, and to honor that legacy.
We don’t really have the language to describe the relationships we form with the people we invite into our homes and minds and conversations through televisions, computers, movie screens and earbuds. But our lack of terminology belies the impact these celebrities have on our lives; their gains and losses have real personal significance to us.
This places a devoted, mourning fan in a confusing position. A deceased celebrity’s family and friends will mourn him or her as a lost brother, sister, wife, husband, son, daughter, and friend. Consumers of the celebrity’s work will never experience that pain. But as members of society, we have lost something when a popular celebrity dies, and we must and do grieve that loss, often together. We are marked by our shared narratives, bound together by what we read, listen to, and watch. These common texts entertain us, teach us, inspire us, and help us relate to one another. Shared texts—including movies, television shows, popular songs—are shared beauty, uniquely human experiences that allow us to connect to one another.
Grief for a fallen celebrity is a strange burden. The rational audience member is at once both saddened and reminded that their relationship with the artist is anything but authentic. Bereavement is clumsy. Where do you place flowers for your favorite late actor? Will you forget the sound of his digitally recorded voice? Can you still bear to watch his films, or is it just too soon? How do we divest ourselves of this awkward weight?
The truth is that grief is an experience that demands community. Missing a well-loved person compounds loneliness, which is why we are compelled to gather together and remember those we personally love and lose. These memorials—particularly of the electronic, social-media stripe—don’t serve any tangible, practical purpose, yet we are moved to be with one another and find some comfort in solidarity. It is another hallmark of being human—to stand together in heartbreak not because togetherness makes it better, but because it is the right thing to do.
That is why social media, for all of its vacuity, is the right place to grieve. There, we are all audience members, all patrons of what is popular, what is sensational, and what is interesting. There, we are always curating, always critiquing. And we are always a little bit different when we log off than we were when we logged on. This is a place founded on and sustained by the practice of generating and consuming creation. Where else would we go to grieve someone we know both well and barely at all? There, we can find our community, seek out one another based on our interests and loves, form friendships on favorite lyrics and tag lines from television shows, and peruse hashtags until we feel surrounded by people who are right where we are.
What does publicly grieving a popular stranger say about the kind of people we are? It tells us that we are very normal people. The Church is a people identified not by their common language or land, but by a shared and holy story that marks and instructs our lives. When we share stories, even through hashtags, we honor that instinct God created in us, the need to come together under a common narrative.