I’ve been watching the spontaneous online “wake” that’s sprung up after news of Robin Williams’ death broke yesterday evening. Like so many fans I’ve seen commenting on news reports and Facebook posts, I’m saddened and touched by this loss more strongly than I’ve been affected by other celebrity deaths.
It’s kind of silly. I certainly came no closer to meeting or crossing paths with Williams than with any other famous person. And yet the humanity and empathy that shone through his stand-up and scripted performances so strongly to me made me feel, just a little tiny bit, like Williams was part of my heart’s family. And so I’m feeling a surprisingly personal (almost even self-indulgent) sense of loss.
I deliberately chose not to say anything about this last night. In part that stems from an ongoing practice of learning to slow myself down, to take at least a tiny bit of reflective time before commenting on emotionally-charged events. Mostly, I was waiting to see if the initial reports of Williams’ death as an “apparent suicide” would turn out to be confirmed. (Which they were today by the county sheriff’s office.)
I’m fortunate enough that I haven’t tripped across a lot of judgement-monkeys in my online travels. I’m sure they’re out there, though. The kind of folks described by Dean Burnett in The Guardian:
However, despite the tremendous amount of love and admiration for Williams being expressed pretty much everywhere right now, there are still those who can’t seem to resist the opportunity to criticise, as they do these days whenever a celebrated or successful person commits suicide. You may have come across this yourself; people who refer to the suicide as “selfish”. People will utter/post phrases such as “to do that to your family is just selfish”, or “to commit suicide when you’ve got so much going for you is pure selfishness”, or variations thereof.
If you are such a person who has expressed these views or similar for whatever reason, here’s why you’re wrong, or at the very least misinformed, and could be doing more harm in the long run.
Burnett goes on to say some very smart things about the real, visceral, illogical and non-discriminatory nature of clinical depression — puncturing a number of misconceptions about our typical (lack of!) understanding for mental illness. He also has some incredibly on-point things to say about the lack of compassion — one could even say, “emotional selfishness,” of someone wanting to take this kind of finger-wagging response to the news of Williams’ death.
But why would you want to publicly declare that the recently deceased is selfish? Especially when the news has only just broken, and people are clearly sad about the whole thing? Why is getting in to criticise the deceased when they’ve only just passed so important to you? What service are you providing by doing so, that makes you so justified in throwing accusations of selfishness around? . . . Perhaps you feel that those expressing sorrow and sadness are wrong and you need to show them that you know better, no matter how upsetting they may find it? And this is unselfish behaviour how, exactly?
A brilliant but tortured individual has taken his own life, and this is a tragedy. But levelling ignorant accusations of selfishness certainly won’t prevent this from happening again. People should never be made to feel worse for suffering from something beyond their control.
Hollis Easter also has posted two very useful essays: one generally giving counsel about how to (and not to) talk about suicide in the wake of Williams’ death, and one focusing more specifically on the possible risks of using the common phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” when talking about Williams’ (or anyone’s) suicide.
In a beautiful yes/and to Burnett’s post, Easter has many of the same cautions (and more besides) against the sorts of judgmental comments Burnett criticizes — as well as calling appropriate attention to the faux-sympathetic-but-subtly-judgemental ones like talking about how “if only he’d fought harder or gotten help!” Easter also has concrete advice about how to openly and compassionately talk about suicide if there’s anyone in your life who shares with you that they’re having suicidal thoughts and ideas. I say the advice is about how to talk to people in the situation, but that’s not exactly true, since a lot of the best advice boils down to this:
But really, just do your best to be direct in listening about suicide. Avoid catchphrases and pat advice, and just listen.
Make it less about what you say and more about what they say.
The advice is especially on point for this circumstance, but the core of it — hold compassion, stay in empathy, do more listening than talking — feel pretty on point in lots of life’s situations. The notes about compassion and empathy even bring me full-circle back to the ways that I value Robin Williams. How I would even say I love him — this wild, human, warm-hearted, genius I never knew beyond celluloid and VHS tape and video disc. How I will miss him.
One final quote, from Anne Lamott:
Gravity yanks us down, even a man as stunning in every way as Robin. We need a lot of help getting back up. And even with our battered banged up tool boxes and aching backs, we can help others get up, even when for them to do so seems impossible or at least beyond imagining. Or if it can’t be done, we can sit with them on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity. You know how I always say that laughter is carbonated holiness? Well, Robin was the ultimate proof of that, and bubbles are spirit made visible.
Rest in peace.
Image credit: http://addisonround2.blogspot.com/2012/07/meiles-nera.html