Looking at social media, it’s clear I’m not the only one needing to sit with this news that’s taking longer than expected to digest. His death was shocking. Stunningly so. Despite the old clichés that comedians are sad people and artists are tortured souls we were thrown off kilter. Why did the suicide of Robin Williams cause such a loud collective intake of breath? Why is it still in the air?
For one thing, you shouldn’t get this kind of news on a beautiful summer weekend in August. It should come in the depths of winter, when you’re longing for warmth and sun and it just won’t come dammit, and you’re almost losing hope.
Then there’s the juxtaposition of one of the funniest men of our time doing something so utterly devoid of humor. The man who controlled audiences with a gesture or a word showed us definitively that he had lost control over what truly mattered.
That funny brilliant man often seemed like someone we knew – an Everyman of comedy. His friends say he was shy. The rest of us easily confuse knowing a celebrity’s work or seeing them ‘candid’ on a late-night talk show with knowing who they are. We knew Robin Williams was over the top – it was his trademark. Most knew of his battles with addiction and depression.
But his death told us we didn’t know him at all. Who would have predicted his death, or the angry, brutal way he killed himself! That aftershock was almost as awful as the news itself.
So what are we left with now? His body of work, of course. We’ll catch up on anything of his we might have missed. We’ll watch his movies, attend retrospectives, we’ll let him make us laugh and feel again.Yesterday I watched the pilot of Mork and Mindy, a show I had never seen. I laughed so hard I almost choked on a sip of water.
We’ll appreciate his creative genius and hopefully we’ll accept his final gift. For his death is a challenge and an opportunity for us to look behind a curtain we so don’t want to lift. Not only to understand mental illness and suicide better, but also to reflect compassion without having to understand.
Too many of us have been impacted by the suicide of friends or family members. We are left with our emotions all across the board — we are hurt, devastated, confused. Guilty. Angry. We ask ourselves if there was something we might have done differently. Maybe, maybe not. But by then we’re looking in the rear view mirror.
Maybe this time we can pay it forward. Maybe this iconic death that has found its way into our national psyche will help us do something differently in our private lives. Perhaps we will learn a little better how to uncover, discuss and respond to mental illness in ways that improve and dignify us and help make lives — and deaths – easier to understand.