Death, Fame, Tragedy, and Connection

I’m a little late to this party, but I want to talk about Paul Walker’s death, and the reactions I saw to it in social media.

The initial wave of reactions I saw were mostly disbelief, or “RIP Paul Walker.” They were normal reactions, and similar to what I’ve observed when other celebrities have died.

The next wave of reactions were all about the driver.  The thrust of those posts were to say, “The death of Paul Walker is tragic, sure, but we should be remembering the other guy, too.” There was a kind of haughty smugness to some of the posts.

Those posts irked me.  I felt like they were berating people for acknowledging the death of one person over another.

The demonstrable truth is that it is normal for us to acknowledge or be impacted by the deaths of some more than the deaths of others.

If I were to tell you that Fred Smith died in a car crash this evening, how would you feel?  If we’re all being honest, we probably feel a little bit bad, if we feel anything at all.  Unless, of course, we’re Mrs. Fred Smith, or Fred Smith Jr., or any of the hundreds of people that actually knew Fred Smith.  Those people will be devastated.

(For the record, I don’t know any Fred Smiths.  If I coincidentally selected the name of someone that actually died in a car crash this evening, I offer my sincere condolences for you loss.)

I know how I felt when my Dad died.  I know how I felt when my Mom died.  I know how I felt when I found out that Paul Walker died.  I even know how I felt when I learned that someone died in the same crash as Paul Walker.  All of those experiences were different.

Here’s a breakdown of my perspective on the matter:

  • Death is usually tragic.  I want to say that it is always tragic for those left behind, but I can imagine scenarios where death is a relief after a long period of suffering.
  • Tragedies do not affect everyone equally.
  • It is our connection to people and events that provide the weight and substance to our distress when we are faced with a tragedy.
  • Fame provides a type of connection, usually unidirectional.  Your favorite actor may not know you, but you “know” your famous actor.

So falling back on the examples I gave, the death of my father hit me the hardest.  I was younger, and though he was in his 70s when he passed away, it happened suddenly.  He’d been healthy and vibrant a month before he died, and I wasn’t prepared.

The death of my Mom hit me pretty hard, but not as hard as when my Dad had died.  I had a different, more strained relationship with my mother.  She had been chronically ill for many years, and she really didn’t take good care of herself.  The death was not a surprise.  It was tragic, and I was sad, but it did not hurt me quite as much as when my Dad died.

The death of Paul Walker didn’t really hurt me.  I knew that he was an actor that played in action movies about cars, so the irony of him dying in a car crash wasn’t lost on me.  He was my age, and that made me think of my own mortality, and how it could have been me dying on the road in fire and metal.  It didn’t hit me on a string emotional level, but I felt bad for the people that knew him best, and I hope he rests in peace.

The death of his driver hurt me even less.  I read his name in one of the posts that seemed to be berating people for not remembering him in death, but I don’t remember his name.  I could investigate his life, commit his name to my memory, and invest energy in trying to get to know him, but what would be the point?  My only emotional connection to this driver that’s died comes in the form of annoyance for those people that want to use him as an excuse to berate strangers over the internet (I say, as I berate strangers over the internet in my blog).

The reality is that nearly 150,000 people die every day on average.  That’s a lot of dying.  Fortunately, we aren’t confronted with the deaths of those strangers constantly.  I think to try and mourn all of those strangers would be unhealthy.

Finally, let’s try not to get so upset when the deaths of famous people are acknowledged.  I look at that as one of the perks of being famous.  The famous are under greater scrutiny, are less able to move about freely, and are often expected to “perform” for perfect strangers on a regular basis.  The perks they get are not free, so let them have their death benefit.