Be kind: Bill Gates's loss is a reminder that public figures deal with private pain

From celebrities to loved ones, we often don't know what's going on beneath the surface in someone's life

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2003 file photo, William H. Gates Sr., left, smiles while sitting next to his son, Bill Gates Jr., during the dedication and grand opening of the William H. Gates Hall, new home of the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. Bill Gates Sr., a lawyer and philanthropist and father of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, died Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, at age 94. (AP Photo/John Froschauer, File)
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It is a routine becoming depressingly familiar. A celebrity has online outrage lobbed at them, a brief reprieve arrives after an announcement of a tragedy or loss, but the hate resumes in earnest not long after.

The latest person subjected to this vicious cycle is tech magnate turned philanthropist Bill Gates, who announced that his father passed away on Monday, September 14.

"My dad was the real Bill Gates. He was everything I try to be and I will miss him every day,” Gates said in the caption below a beaming black and white picture of his dad.

While the online reception is presently mostly supportive, few have had to deal with as much vitriol this year as Gates.

He has taken the extra step to block comment responses to his posts, but a tech genius like him knows all too well it’s a lost cause. A simple hashtag search of his name is home to an endless stream of bile and ludicrous accusations relating to the pandemic.

According to some of the online chatter, instead of tending to his ailing father, Gates was using his time in isolation to whip up a malevolent vaccine that implants tracking devices into unsuspecting citizens. Others claim Gates is revelling in the present health crisis, as it accelerates his plans for an apocalyptic "digital revolution" in which he oversees the planet like Darth Vader. Others just call him a "ghoul" and "psychopath".

The fascination with celebrity tragedy

What we do know now is that Gates has been suffering from private pain recently while dealing with this public onslaught.

He was facing the traumatic experience of seeing a loved one leave this world.

Sure, celebrities, the famous and the rich should be subject to scrutiny to ensure they use their platform for good. But this is something Gates does a lot of: however that truth isn't convenient to the bargain-store opinionistas that think his interest in pandemics equates to his orchestration of them.

The anguish of losing a family member cannot be bought off by a billion dollar bank account. That trauma is all too real.

Thinking about this also cracks open a truth about social media and celebrity: the enduring fact that behind the most public of lives lies everyday tragedies and fears we all experience or, at least understand.

At its most powerful, witnessing a celebrity go through a tragedy can trigger a new wave of insight that carries on long after the event itself. But at its most macabre, it unleashes a new wave of conspiracy theories that overshadows the victims and those in mourning.

The fact that Gates is already receiving offensive posts relating to his father’s death is a dark example of the latter.

We saw glimpse of our collective better selves last month, however, with the untimely passing of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman. His death at the relatively young age of 43 from colon cancer threw up as many questions as answers.

The outpouring not only cemented his place as a ground-breaking actor of colour in Hollywood, but was also the painful and final response to the online questioning, more often cruel than kind, about his weight loss over the last 12 months.

We now know why he'd lost that weight, and it should serve as a reminder to not trivialise such things. Boseman kept his condition a secret: visiting sick children while himself juggling procedures. Because of his quiet bravery, social media has been flooded with posts insisting his death should be a wakeup call to treat each other with more kindness “because we don’t know how they are truly feeling.”

Bill Gates, surely, deserves the same?

The late Kelly Preston, who passed away in July from breast cancer, also kept her illness away from the public eye. A scan through the Instagram account of the acclaimed actress and wife of superstar John Travolta shows her leading a quiet family life with family dinner snapshots, Christmas celebrations and fun selfies.

Reports of her two year breast cancer battle only started appearing after her death. As a result, her social media account is now peppered with comments expressing shock at the sudden loss.

Sometimes it’s right in front of you

And that’s the point, from celebrities to loved ones, no one really know what’s going on beneath the surface in someone's life. As an entertainment journalist, I have been in situations in which I know I realise I didn’t read the room properly.

I still remember chatting with a hollow-eyed and gaunt Avicii in 2015, which, in hindsight, hinted at the troubles ahead. He described how he travelled with a private fitness instructor to keep physically and mentally healthy during his endless gruelling tours. He looked tired, sure, but he was a lovely guy and his jet setting life sounded glamorous to me.

A year later Avicii retired from touring, citing exhaustion, before taking his own life in an Omani resort in 2018. In a bittersweet coda befitting his biggest hits, Avicii's demise ushered in much-needed conversations about mental health within the EDM industry.

Journalist Saeed Saeed with Selena Gomez in Dubai, 2013. Courtesy: Saeed Saeed
Journalist Saeed Saeed with Selena Gomez in Dubai, 2013. Courtesy: Saeed Saeed

And in a 2013 interview, I didn't fully grasp the magnitude of the stress that singer and actress Selena Gomez was talking about when she was describing her young life under the spotlight . "I am just a kid that is trying to figure out what my place is," she told me, looking a little weary. Three years later, she checked into rehab to deal with a spiralling anxiety disorder and depression.

Such recollections makes me realise, once again, that success is relative. Celebrities, like everyone else, have their own struggles to live with.

The fact that relentless online trolls need to be reminded of that shows just how disconnected some of us have become.