When public figures die we mourn them en-masse. We reach out to each other, we cry, gather for memorials and experience a very palpable sense of loss. But why do we do this? After all, we didn’t know these people. We didn’t know their inner lives or private motivations. We watched them from afar, and admired them only on screen and on stage. And yet, the deaths of JFK, John Lennon, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson all caused global outpourings of emotion.
When Steve Jobs died two days ago, Facebook and Twitter filled up with dedications and eulogies from as afar as India and Indonesia. But Jobs was no altruistic do-gooder like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, he wasn’t an idealistic politician or a peace-loving musician.
“Psychological research shows that people can form significant attachments to celebrities or public figures they’ve never met,” says Steven Meyers, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Roosevelt University. “With Jobs, this is enhanced by people actually owning the devices and products he’s created. “
But perhaps there is something else. Perhaps Jobs is the role model for a generation that is no longer moved by idealistic selflessness. Maybe he embodies the aspirations of 20-somethings around the world – to change the world and get rich along the way.
“Much of this is also related to how Steve Jobs marketed himself. He always wore jeans. People referred to him by his first name. Few CEOs have the same kind of longevity,” says Meyers.
There are other reasons for public grieving too – reasons unconnected to Jobs’ apparent coolness but related, instead, to the very primal emotion of grief itself.
Centuries ago, we gathered in town squares to discuss the deaths of our neighbors and friends. We gathered because we needed our grief to be witnessed. Today, our communities have expanded to encompass entire nations, and Facebook is the new town square. “We need others to share our grief because we need to know that the person’s life mattered. Consequently, we need to be assured that when we die, our life will matter too,” says grief expert David Kessler who co-authored the book, “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss.” And so we gather on social media and share our loss just like our ancestors 200 years ago.
But most of all, the death of a public figure is a reminder of our own frailty and mortality. If Steve Jobs, with all the wealth in the world, could not be saved from the ordinary reality of terminal illness, how can we even try?
What's your experience with grieving for public figures? Why do you think we care so much? Why did Steve Jobs move us in this way? Tell us below.