Why We Mourn For Strangers

The death of Matthew Perry made me reflect on my emotional response to a stranger’s passing. I found intriguing research that explores the psychological concept of parasocial relationships and cybermourning to help me understand why I experience a sensation of loss when an entertainer’s final curtain is lowered. 

Using thematic analysis, the researcher studied 1,299 condolences posted on the obituary website Legacy.com to come up with themes that opened the window to cybermourning and parasocial relationships on the night worldly-famous comedian and actor Robin Williams hanged himself, August, 11, 2014. In addition to the themes that emerged, loss, appreciation and celebration, the study revealed that a majority of cybermourners had developed a deep parasocial relationship with Williams and viewed him as more than a comedian. They saw him as a close friend or relative who had died. The deeply emotional posts outnumbered two to one the posts from cybermourners whose condolences were respectful, short and generic. Fans also shared intimate life struggles associated with drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness with their virtual “close” friend Williams who was also struggling with the same demons. This paper discusses cybermourning, parasocial relationships and the pros and cons of such online relationships.

Make sure to read the full paper titled More than a Comedian: Exploring Cybermourning and Parasocial Relationships the Night Hollywood Star Robin Williams Died by Kim Smith at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3078704

On October 28, 2023 news broke about the passing of television actor and “Friends” star Matthew Perry. The Hollywood Reporter described his passing feels like “when a Beatle dies”. Perry struggled with alcoholism his entire career and he was outspoken about mental health. I can’t remember when I first watched the show Friends. When I watched it, I never reached a level of binge-watching episode after episode. Yet the writers delivered a storyline so universally applicable that we, as the audience, really bought into a group of friends just trying to grow up and find their place in this ever-expanding world. It was my story. It was your story. It was our story. 

Perry’s passing reminded me of the deaths of other celebrities: Steve Jobs, Anthony Bourdain, Chester Bennington, Sean Connery, Paul Walker, Carrie Fisher, Kirstie Alley, Betty White, and many more. But perhaps most notable among them is Robin Williams. The paper starts by explaining the concept of cybermourning as a process to take grief to social media and immortalize it in cyberspace. Facebook will become a place where more deceased than alive profiles make up their account statistics. Websites like legacy.com offer a last farewell that can be revisited at all times. It is a collective experience as others are allowed to share their condolences. The concept of our human response to death itself is complex. Mankind has always mourned the passing of one of us. Mourning can be described as an elevated emotional grief induced by the outside event of the passing of a loved one. It does help to reunite those left behind, but it also serves as a healing period. On the other hand, parasocial relationships are a concept almost entirely tied to the onset of audiovisual communication technology, e.g. cinema, television, and streaming. It describes the identification of the viewer with the portrayed character. People seek out similarities, similar behaviors, and other personality traits. In extreme cases, people want to be that person (even when they know it is a fictional character that only exists in a Hollywood storyline). The internet and relentless news coverage impact the intensity of a parasocial relationship. 

Against this backdrop, the author designed two research questions to study the public’s emotional response when actor Robin Williams died. 

  1. What themes explain how cybermourners mourned the night Williams died?
  2. What happened to cybermourners who developed parasocial relationships with Williams?

The research reviewed 1,299 responses posted to the obituary page of Robin Williams on legacy.com. His page continues to receive postings to this day. They identified three themes among the posts: loss, appreciation, and celebration. Most strikingly, they found people had developed a near-intimate relationship with Robin Williams because of the shared emotional struggles, alcoholism, and humor that get us through the day. The internet’s permanent access and appearance of a “personal space” that lives on our computers or in our phones lowered inhibitions to share fears, secret desires, and vulnerable emotions associated with the career of Robin Williams.  

Early psychological research suggested these types of parasocial relationships are linked to fears, isolation, and diminished social experiences. More recent research, however, found that parasocial relationships, and their natural end, may invoke cathartic effects that help people to develop a better understanding of themselves and the world around them. Cybermourning can provide a therapeutic relief that is shared by thousands or millions of others online. Therefore it can neutralize the experience of grief and sadness that commonly occur with learning about someone’s death. Lastly, it can raise awareness of the universal human struggle that we all experience – from addiction to mental health. 

Matthew Perry playing Chandler on Friends helped millions of non-English speakers to learn English. The show introduced everyday cultural norms, although exaggerated, to an audience unfamiliar with American customs and traditions. This helped shape the social fabric of the United States. Anyone lucky to watch Friends during their late teenage years may look back fondly on the curiosity that surrounded social experiences, your first relationship, your first disagreement, your first job loss, your first financial struggle, and all these other experiences that we all universally endure and overcome. 

Perhaps learning about Chandler’s passing made me reflect on my mortality and how fleeting this experience that we call life really is (loss). It is a stark reminder of the importance of healthy relationships, compassion, and compromise (appreciation) – but really that these things are worth working for because they are so rare and the cast of Friends made us whole showing us that (celebration).   

Leave a Reply