Thoughts on Paul Walker’s passing and the way we deal with celebrity death

The worst thing about dying young is the hole you leave in so many lives. Paul Walker’s car accident tonight must have shocked and devastated the people he’s worked with over the years, and I can’t imagine how this feels for the people who are part of the “Fast and Furious” franchise. No one could have predicted that they would be shooting a seventh film right now when the first one opened a mere 12 years ago, and they certainly couldn’t have predicted the way the franchise became a family affair over time, both onscreen and off. I can’t think of any other action series that is so explicitly focused on the notion of the way we build our families, and I suspect that’s a big part of the completely unironic appeal of the films.

More than anything tonight, I am haunted by the idea of someone having to tell his daughter about his passing. Meadow Rain is only 14 years old, and while there is no good age for lose a father, the pain of losing one right as you’re entering one of the most confusing, difficult, emotionally turbulent times of life seems profoundly upsetting to me. Whatever reaction I’m having to Walker’s passing tonight isn’t about the movies he made or the movies he might have made or how I did or didn’t feel about his work. It doesn’t have to be. More than anything, it’s that simple sharp pang of empathy at the thought of how his passing affects the community around him, both personal and professional.

It is one of the strangest parts of pop culture, seeing the way it reacts when someone famous dies. No matter who it is, there will be people who instantly demonstrate the biggest way possible, who act as if they have been personally wounded and destroyed. There will be others who react with snark, who start making jokes as soon as they hear, almost reflexively, like that’s all they can do. There will be a wide range of reactions in public, and social media has just turned up that particular volume, and you’ll see news sites immediately kick into a certain degree of high gear to set the death in context and, yes, to give their readers something to read at that moment, something that may help them as they struggle to react. People who never wrote a single word about the person during life may suddenly speak of them with a reverence that might strike you as false, but I prefer to think that for many people, there is a human button that gets pushed at these moments and suddenly, there is a desire to share in a grief that is very real.

When I see James Wan or Dwayne Johnson reacting tonight online, I can’t even imagine being together enough to even manage a simple comment for the public. It’s obviously genuine, and more than anything, I think it makes it real for the fans who see that. It’s one thing to think “Oh, I’m sorry that person I’ll never meet died,” but it’s another thing entirely to see his collaborators reacting, reeling from the impact of it. When I see people piling on to make cracks about Walker’s work or about him as a performer, I can’t even imagine being so oblivious to the basics of human interaction that you would think it is appropriate to be awful about these things. There are real people who are in real pain right now, and just because they are famous, it does not make them abstracts. It does not make you edgy or funny or daring to be terrible to someone who is hurting over the loss of a friend. It just makes you rotten. Even so, I see it every time, and again… it doesn’t matter who passes away. Someone will find an excuse to be crappy about it. “What? Mr. Rogers passed away. Well, I really hated his dumb sweaters.” Sometimes, all you need to do when others are in pain is be decent, and if that means keeping your mouth shut and not using your keyboard for a few hours, then so be it.

In the case of Paul Walker, if you want a reason to take a moment tonight to reflect on his passing that has nothing at all to do with his movies, can I direct your attention to the official website of ROWW, aka Reach Out WorldWide?

Reach Out WorldWide (ROWW) – consisting of skilled volunteers – is a non-profit registered 501(c)3 organization. While part of a relief team responding to the massive earthquakes that devastated Haiti on January 12, 2010; Actor/Producer Paul Walker saw a gap between the availability of skilled resources and the requirement for such personnel in post-disaster situations. Following the trip he contacted a group of his friends to assist him in forming ROWW with the purpose of filling this unmet need.

ROWW is a network of committed professionals with first responder skill-set (including project management, logistics, heavy equipment operation, EMT, paramedic, firefighting, and healthcare, etc). The volunteers provide their expertise when disasters strike and augment local resources with the goal of accelerating relief efforts on a worldwide basis. ROWW has developed Standard Operating Procedures that facilitate arriving quickly, clearing access, providing basic necessities and medical assistance to ease the survivors’ pain and bringing hope in the bleakest of circumstances.

Explore their website a bit. Take a look at the work they’ve done and the goals they have as an organization. Often, at moments like this, people look for a way they can do something that fully demonstrates what they feel about the person who passed, and I can’t think of a better way to pay tribute to Paul Walker as a person than to help support an organization that does genuine good for people in desperate need, an organization that he helped start because he saw how it could affect lives.

I never heard anything about Walker from his collaborators that would suggest he was anything but a hard-working guy who loved his daughter and who knew full well that even with the “Fast and Furious” franchise, he was always struggling to find work that challenged him and that could showcase him as a performer. I never got the feeling, in any conversation I had with him, that he felt like he was above reproach as a performer. Quite the contrary. He always seemed to be eager to grow, eager to try something different, eager to prove that he could do more than he had done so far.

With Reach Out WorldWide, he wasn’t just talking about changing lives, he was actually doing it. He created something that works. He inspired the best part of people and got them to do tremendous things. Celebrity or not, that is worth honoring tonight, and hopefully ROWW will continue to do their good work in memory of him.

Paul Walker was 40.


More coverage from HitFix: 

Jordana Brewster and “Fast and Furious” director Justin Lin react to Walker’s death.

Video: Paul Walker’s last interview with HitFix for his upcoming movie “Hours”

Officials: Speed was a factor in Paul Walker car crash