Fans of Disney star Cameron Boyce awoke to tragic news Sunday: The 20-year-old actor, best known for his roles in "Jessie" and "The Descendants," had died in his sleep after suffering a seizure. Social media quickly flooded with tributes to Boyce, who was remembered as a rising talent with a passion for humanitarian work.
But by that afternoon, some fans had turned their focus to Boyce's former co-star, Debby Ryan, who played the title role on "Jessie." Multiple gossip sites reported that the actress had turned off the comments on her recent Instagram posts after fans criticised her for not yet posting about Boyce - as several of their colleagues from the Disney Channel sitcom had done. Other fans speculated wildly about why she hadn't posted, leading to unsubstantiated rumours about her health in the wake of Boyce's untimely death.
Ryan later honoured her co-star in an Instagram story that featured a clip of a speech the actor gave last year at a Thirst Project gala, where he was celebrated for his efforts to combat the global water crisis. It was a simple tribute, in Boyce's own telling words:
"It's crazy, we can tweet whenever we want, and we can use social media and Instagram and make the world a better place instead of a worse one, which so many people use it for," Boyce said. "We need to use what we have to make the world a better place for other people - other people, who need us."
Boyce's death prompted a strikingly darker use of social media, which has made celebrities accessible to their fans - and critics - in unprecedented ways. In an era of hyper-awareness of what celebrities say (or don't) and who they follow on social media (or don't), Ryan became the latest star to be scrutinised for not immediately and publicly baring her emotions.
After Luke Perry died at 52 in March following a massive stroke, Jennie Garth and Brian Austin Green defended themselves from fans who called them out for not posting or releasing statements, like their former "Beverly Hills, 90210" co-stars had.
Four days after Perry's death was announced, Garth confronted backlash for sharing a photo of her three daughters in honour of International Women's Day. "It took a lot for me to want to celebrate anything. I thought about it and I know that's the way my dear friend would have wanted it," Garth wrote in the comments. "His kids were his life," she added, noting that Perry, who did not have an official Twitter or Instagram account, did not care much for social media.
Later that month, Green caught flak for promoting an upcoming episode of his podcast in an Instagram video. "I'm not sure how you could do this so soon. I haven't seen anything from you about his passing," one commenter wrote, according to People.
Green wrote back, calling Perry's death "terrible." He added that "everyone grieves differently." He later told listeners of his "With Brian Austin Green" show that Perry "was a special guy" and that he was still mourning the actor. "Aren't I mourning for myself? Mourn your own way," he said. "I chose not to say anything or post anything - to me, my relationship with Luke just meant that much."
"I'm not for a second going to let someone make me feel judged for dealing with the situation how I choose to deal with it," he added.
The vitriol extended to Perry's own family, as the late actor's daughter hit back at social media users in a frank Instagram post after receiving an influx of attention after her father's death. "I am going to laugh and smile and live my normal life," she wrote. "But I'm not going to sit in my room and cry day in and day out until the internet has deemed it appropriate for me to do otherwise."
There are "no hard or fast rules" when it comes to grieving - even in the public eye, says veteran publicist Susan Patricola. "Everybody deals with grief in their own way," she said. A statement or social media post "may not be immediate - it may take time and it may not happen at all."
Patricola said the difference between someone who talks about their grief online can be generational since younger people are more accustomed to sharing everything on social media. One of Garth's Instagram followers said as much while defending the actress in March. "Posting everything on social media isn't HER generation, it's yours," they wrote. "We were raised without it and know how to live without it, so ya, she didn't 'POST about it.' She's living it, big difference kids."
But Patricola said it also depends on the individual. And because grief is such a personal experience, Patricola said she would "never" advise a client on how to publicly address a loss.
"It's their own personal feelings. There are certain people that are just more to themselves than others and it's my job to know those people," she said. "If they have said nothing, it's because they have chosen to say nothing."
One of the more prominent instances of public grief unfolded in September, when Ariana Grande's ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, died of an accidental overdose. Eyes quickly turned to the singer, who disabled comments on her Instagram account after trolls descended, blaming her for the rapper's death. She remained silent until the next day when she posted a black-and-white photograph of Miller.
In the months since, Grande has periodically honoured Miller on social media - and has continued to weather harsh comments from strangers. "I pray you never have to deal with anything like this ever and i'm sending you peace and love," she wrote in November after a now-suspended Twitter user accused her of "milkin" her loss.
Grande's struggle highlights what some fans have forgotten in the age of social media: Celebrities are human, and nothing illustrates that like grief. "I don't think being an actor or a high-profile person gives people the right - whether you're on social media or not - to tell you how you should feel," Patricola said.
© The Washington Post 2019