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Farewell to Robin Williams: Why Do We Get So Sad When a Celebrity Dies?

14/08/2014 16:39 BST | Updated 13/10/2014 10:59 BST

I was sad when I saw the news of the death of Robin Williams. He seemed like one of those actors that would be around forever. You couldn't really imagine him dying. We took his presence for granted as if it would always be there. As soon as I found out of his death I, like thousands of others across the world, shared my sadness on social media.

It wasn't long before someone voiced their opinion against the flood of emotion.

"Let me know when you're all done mourning someone you never knew," one acquaintance surreptitiously commented to no one in particular. I think this is merely his sense of humour but it struck a chord with me somewhat, because I'd found myself sad and surprised by Williams's passing. It did, however, make me think a little about why we get so attached to celebrities and why we're so upset when they pass away.

Since the death was announced, people all over the world have poured out their sadness over this. The outpouring of grief was almost instantaneous. Social media sites became ablaze with tributes to the actor. From normal folks to celebrities, many seem veritably shaken by this news. People enter our collective conciousness and we warm to them. Even if they're not close, we see them in films that we watch and revisit. We also live in an age where we have a lot of access to information about our favourite actors and artists. They become our role models because we are extremely aware of them. It happens. We like and appreciate them and their on screen presence. Williams, for many of us, featured in beloved children's films like Aladdin, Hook, Mrs Doubtfire, Flubber and Jumanji as well as classics like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet's Society. So many of us warmed to this delightful, funny man. In some way, he was present during our childhood or the childhoods of our children. He was making us laugh for decades. He made us smile. I feel that, when we watch someone on TV, we're not just following their story-lines; we're relating those stories and those characters to ourselves and our own lives. Williams lit up the screen with his comic characters as well as his more heartfelt moments. We secretly included ourselves when Mara Wilson uttered the words "We're his god damn kids too," in Mrs Doubtfire. We put ourselves in their shoes or shoes of other characters. So many children whose parents were going through a divorce latched into films like Mrs Doubtfire. We felt for the man trapped in the jungle for most of his life at the hands of a cruel board game. So many of us were moved by the idea of Peter Pan finally growing up and returning to Neverland as an adult, prompting us to think about what we wanted as children and who we eventually became.

In this case it is also shocking because he was someone with such warmth and such a wonderful capability to make us laugh and smile. We expect those who bring joy to have some left over for themselves. That's the thing about mental illness: you don't often see the signs until it's too late. It can happen to anyone we know, anyone we love, and if it can claim someone we've managed to relate to and appreciate through something as tenuous as a television screen, it could happen to someone more tangible in our real lives too. Social media quickly catches on to the news of a celebrity death quickly and there is a strange sense of unity as we all tweet, comment and discuss people and how they entered our personal and collective conciousness. It feels like some strange, international funeral. If a celebrity has had an impact on your life, even in some small way, it can feel like a part of your past has gone or changed somehow. It may, if you are of a similar age, even remind you of your own possible death because you see some of yourself in the fallen artist.

Robin Williams as an actor gave me so many laughs, smiles and tears. He brought an emotional reaction out of me many times. Sure, I didn't know him. The real him. I knew only little glimpses. I don't think any of us have to really justify our sadness that comes as a response to death. We loved the little glimpses that we got of this wonderful human being. Deaths like this remind us that we are all mortal and, no matter how we knew the person, if there is a genuine feeling of sadness or grief I'd say that such emotions are always valid.