Why saying goodbye to Robin Williams hurts

Last updated 16:32 15/08/2014
Sydney Morning Herald

Robin Williams was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson's Disease, along with anxiety and depression but was sober when he died, his wife Susan Schneider says.

KEN HIVELY/Los Angeles Times Zoom
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.'

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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.

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"?

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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


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