Why Are We So Affected By Robin Williams’ Death?

This is going to be a very difficult post.  Life sometimes is difficult. I like to put it as: it’s not all rainbows and unicorns.  The good news is, that we can reach out, get the help we need, and build our resiliency. While there is much pain in the world, there is also much beauty, much healing, and much overcoming.  Keeping that in mind, I will share my experience with a recent event about which you are almost certainly aware.

Last Monday night, one of my best friends and I sat down to watch The Bird Cage.  We were looking for a comedy on Netflix, and it recommended this movie.  We hadn’t seen a movie with Robin Williams in a while, and were laughing our butts off.  At about 9:30 pm and half-way through the movie, we decided that we needed to do some other things and that we’d finish watching the movie the next night. We still haven’t returned to the film. We’re just not ready.


Little did we know that just a few hours later and only a short drive away from us, Robin Williams would take his own life.

I heard the news during a DBT class that I was teaching online. One of my students said, “Sorry, I  just got distracted because I heard the news about Robin Williams.”  Another student said, “I think that was a hoax.”  The first student replied, “I don’t think so. I’m so sad.”

At this point, I drew the conclusion that Robin had died, but to keep the class safe, keep myself emotionally regulated, and to foster an environment that would hopefully help my students to do the same, I said, “Wait — what news — no, you know what?  I know we have a lot competing for our attention when we’re taking an online class.  Let’s focus on our studies and those of us who want to know what happened can look after class.”  My students agreed.

Of course, the first thing I did after class, even though I am an emotionally sensitive person and KNOW BETTER (yet always seem to do this), I turned on CNN.  That’s when I learned the news was true. Robin was dead.  I was so sad. And, I felt weirded out, since I had started watching The Bird Cage the night before and was thinking to myself, “Wow, he’s inspiring. He’s struggled with mental illness his whole life.  What an awesome, loving, person he is. So funny, too.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, the next morning our local sheriff’s office had a press conference on the nature of Robin’s passing. I will only tell you, in case you haven’t heard it, and I hope you don’t, that it was VERY graphic.  It was like an auditory train wreck.  As much as I knew it wasn’t good for me to hear, I kept listening.   I then cried and sobbed at how sad I was for him and his family.  I was ANGRY at the press for allowing the broadcasting of such details about how he was found, etc.  I felt angry because, to me, it was very un-dignifying to this man who should be remembered for all he gave to this world and not for how he was found after committing suicide.

It was very difficult to hold and process that day, and to be honest, I still feel affected by it and am not 100% emotionally regulated since it happened.    I reached out to my therapist and also talked about it in DBT group under the scope of Mindfulness practice.  I talked about how I am working hard to consciously redirect my thoughts to other things when the distress associated with Robin’s passing becomes too much to bear.  My doctor said this was an excellent use of Mindfulness skills, and she urged me to consider, when I’m feeling stronger, to consider exploring WHY his death has affected me so much.  I couldn’t fully understand why I  — and so many of us — have been having such a strong reaction, and why some among us think we’re weird for grieving over someone who was not a close relative or someone we even knew.

She suggested that Carl Jung’s complex theory can help explain it.  She said that within us are chemicals, physical structures of cells moving about, neurons sending information all over our bodies by neurochemical reaction, and our nervous system is reacting — all in response to what we take in in our environment.  Hearing about Robin Williams can be triggering for us for so many reasons.  I can relate to many mentioned in this Huffington Post article by Lindsay Holmes, Why do we grieve celebrities?

We feel like we were connected with celebrities. We “grew up with them.” In Robin’s case, he brought us joy, laughter, and he was incredible actor who brought characters to life like few others could.   For me, he was practically a neighbor.  His death reminded me of my own mortality and that of those I love.  It reminded me of the scary fact that sometimes people feel so desperate that they think death and suicide are the only answers.  Writing that makes me cry.  For a man so gentle, so kind, so wonderful, who although it turns out he was facing financial and health issues, had access to some of the very best care, still ended up taking his life.  He knew we would find out.  He felt so much pain that this concern didn’t stop him.   All of this is quite scary to me. This is all very, very difficult stuff for anyone to process.  We MUST reach out for the help of qualified professionals who can help us work through our grief, whether or not our grief makes sense to us or anyone else around us.  As Dr. Linehan always says, there is “cause” for the emotions we experience, even if we can’t readily identify them. Therefore, our experience is valid. It deserves to be honored by looking at it and processing it through in a safe space.   (This is actually the first time I’m processing through it, and I plan to talk about it later today in a therapy appointment.)

There is very little control we have when things like this happen.  I did what I could do.  I started this post in memoriam of him on Facebook, which many from around the world have found, “liked,” and commented on.  I invite you to do the same.

I’m processing through my own stuff, and I’m sure many of you are doing the same. If you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself or need help working through processing Robin’s suicide and you’re in the United States, you can call 1-800-273-8255.  Please do reach out for help.   When I called them in the past to help a suicidal friend, they said they are there for loved ones and those affected by suicide in any way — so you can get the support you need.  If you’re outside of the United States and know of such numbers or websites in your country, please reply to this post with your country and that information.
We will get through this.  Rest in Peace, dear Robin, you are already so dearly missed.
Thanks for reading.

More Soon.

In kindness,

UPDATE:  Check out this wonderful post from Dr. Robert Fischer of Optimum Performance Institute on this issue from a compassionate clinical perspective.

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