Why saying goodbye to Robin Williams hurts

04:32, Aug 15 2014

When US talk show host Jimmy Fallon choked back tears while introducing a tribute to Robin Williams, who took his life on Monday, Fallon was one of millions worldwide experiencing real grief.

Many people reading this will have felt a deep sense of sadness over Williams' death. I have - I've been aware of Williams since I could understand jokes. His character Mork is probably my earliest memory of how uplifting anarchic, spontaneous comedy can be.

Of course every death - from a cherished public figure to the unknown and even unloved - is equal. But the depth of public grieving for Williams seems up there with those deaths which have affected millions: Princess Diana and Michael Jackson also come to mind.

Robin Williams receives the Stand Up Icon Award during the 2012 Comedy Awards in New York
Robin Williams
Robin Williams onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in September 2013.
Robin Williams holds his Oscar after winning best performance by an actor in a supporting role in 1998 for his role "Good Will Hunting".
Robin Williams stars in his 1996 movie "Jack".
Robin Williams stars in his 1996 movie "Jack".
Cast member Robin Williams gestures at a panel for the television series "The Crazy Ones" last year.
Robin Williams
Williams doing what he did best, at the 6th Annual Stand Up For Heroes in 2012.
Actor Robin Williams speaks onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2013 as a picture of him in the cast of TV show Mork and Mindy is screened behind him.
Actor Robin Williams speaks onstage during the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2013 as a picture of him in the cast of TV show Mork and Mindy is screened behind him.
Robin Williams and Ben Stiller in "Night at the Museum".
Robin Williams stars in the 1995 movie, Jumanji.
Robin Williams stars in the 1995 movie, Jumanji.
williams and daughter
Robin Williams and daughter Zelda Williams at the premiere of their film "House of D" in 2005.
williams wife
Robin Williams and wife Susan Schneider arrive at the premiere of "Happy Feet Two" in Los Angeles in 2011.
williams defence
Robin Williams entertains US Army troops as part of a USO Holiday Tour, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in 2003.
williams insomnia
Al Pacino and Robin Williams in a scene from the suspense thriller film "Insomnia" in 2002.
WTC williams
Robin Williams shares a laugh by phone with the wife of a police officer working near the site of the World Trade Center collapse in Manhattan on Oct 17, 2001. Williams spent time with rescue workers as well as surprising their wives with phone calls.
williams whoopi
Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams share a hug on the stage of New York's Radio City Music Hall at the end of HBO's "Comic Relief 8" show June 14. The show raises funds for homeless projects.
connolly williams
Scottish comedian Billy Connolly with his close friend Robin Williams, at a Lornach Highland gathering in Strathdon, Scotland, in 2000.
charles williams
Britain's Prince Charles meets Robin Williams backstage at the Wimbledon Theatre, London, in 2008, during a charity performance in aid of the Prince's Trust.
Robin Williams' wife Susan Schneider has paid tribute to the star: 'This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.'

This year it's been particularly hard to escape public grieving. Consider the sad roll call of celebrity deaths: Williams, Lauren BacallRik MayallPhilip Seymour HoffmanBob HoskinsMaya AngelouDoc NeesonPeaches GeldofGabriel Garcia MarquezL'Wren ScottBobby WomackShirley Temple - and many others.

What a numbing list: so many people who brought joy or we related to or somehow felt connected with. Every week seems to bring a new desperately sad headline. But all of this public grieving is a phenomenon not without criticism: the 10 million-plus google searches conducted for Williams? They must be sufferers of "mourning sickness", which is what Wikipedia calls it. The wall to wall media coverage? Could that be what is distastefully referred to as "grief porn"?

So why do we grieve as we do for people we don't know? Is it healthy? Is there anything to really learn from feeling sad for famous people? 


Clinical psychologist Dr Melissa Keogh says people should not feel ashamed or hide these feelings. "We do worry that people might laugh at us," she says.

"But the research does shows we can form significant attachments to these people. Even if we haven't met them it's still a personal experience: we've seen and heard Robin Williams, he's moved us in some way, he's been there at different times in our lives.

"People are significantly affected, myself included. Dead Poets Society was a big part of my adolescence, so I feel like I've lost part of my adolescence."

Keogh says grief over public figures can be a challenge because society has no clear processes for dealing with that grief. "We won't go to his funeral and if we talk about it we worry people might laugh at us. 

"So talk to someone you trust ... [or] take a piece of paper and write down how you feel."

Another psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, says she feels loss at Williams' death too. "I'm really saddened. It's a loss to the entertainment world but the wider world too ... He contributed so much that was positive to the world. I would have loved to see [another] Mrs Doubtfire; that would have brought great joy to me."

She believes we feel a deeper sense of loss over the deaths of people we perceive to be 'good'. "We all felt this great positivity from him, so that made it hurt a bit more."

"I have Facebook like most people and I'm finding that a lot of friends are saying how sad they have been. I think it's touched people in a way that we need to talk about.

"I'm finding that people expressing sadness for Robin Williams are often reflecting on their own stories or others around them. They say 'I know how this feels because I've got a relative who went through this. This puts mental health issues that people quietly go through in their lives to the forefront.

"We look after our physical health but we don't look after our mental health... we don't talk enough about it. Mental health and suicide should not be taboo.

"It's not helpful to talk about methods [of suicide] but we need to educate people this is not a path people have to take. None of us are alone.

"We can also take the opportunity to learn how to help others to get assistance."

Dr Cindy Nour, also a clinical psychologist, agrees people should take some time to think about themselves. "Are you reading a lot [about Williams' death] because you can relate? Are you a happy-go-lucky person who puts a mask on but doesn't reveal much or seek help?"

She believes Williams' death does reinforce what we know about the indiscriminate nature of depression. "Money will never buy happiness. All the research says once you have reached a certain level of [wealth] above the poverty line, where you have adequate food, a roof, comfort security we know that happiness does not increase with the more money you earn. We can fall into that trap ... just because you are a big earner it does not mean you are immune." 

McCormack says grief over Williams' death will pass for most people. "If you are still reading a lot about it in a week's time and feeling incredibly sad, unless you personally knew him or were connected in some way it might be time to talk to your doctor."



Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling

Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.

Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.

Alcohol & Drug Helpline 0800 787 797  

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to 11pm)

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)

Alcohol drug helpline: 0800 787 797 (10am - 10pm)

If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111

For information about suicide prevention, see http://www.spinz.org.nz.

Sydney Morning Herald