By now it isn’t news that Robin Williams killed himself earlier this week. Facebook feeds have been filled with grief and anguish over the passing of such a well renowned and loved comedian. Movie clips and stand-up segments from all parts of Williams’ career are being shared and watched, laughed at and cried over. I can’t think of a single celebrity who’s death have affected so many of us so deeply. Even legendary stars like Paul Newman or Peter O’Toole didn’t create such a fervor over their passing. Robin Williams was almost universally loved and respected, and now he is being almost universally mourned.
It’s often hard to find the silver lining when it comes to someone’s death, but in Williams case I think it’s been amazing to see how much frank and honest discussion about mental illness his suicide has inspired. The dark irony is not lost on people that a man who brought joy and laughter to so many eventually succumbed to his own depression. There was a brilliant article on the usually lighthearted Cracked.com about comedians and depression, and about how those who most make us laugh usually do so from a place darkness and pain that they’re constantly trying to hide from.
I’ve also seen an stirring amount of compassion online. People have been reaching out everywhere to make sure that those who battles depression know that they’re not alone, that there’s help out there, and that they’re loved and wanted. Some who do face mental illness issues are discussing openly and frankly about the challenges they face. An article by JT Eberhard featuring a video by Sky Williams is particularly moving, in my opinion.
In short, while it came at great cost, William’s suicide is doing a lot to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness. Hopefully the lessons we’re learning stick.
Of course, not all the reactions are so positive. There are bloogers who refuse to understand the way a depressed persons’ own brain can turn against them, and empty-headed pundits callous enough turn tragedy into a political talking point. There always has to be one asshole who has to make it more about themselves. Rush Limbaugh, however, wasn’t even the worst.
Disappointingly, the most atrociously insensitive piece I read about Williams came instead from the atheist community, namely PZ Meyers. Meyers wrote a short piece not long after Williams’ death called, “Robin Williams brings joy to the hearts of journalists and politicians once again” in which he argues that the politicians and media outlets both are shamelessly capitalizing on Williams’ death to distract people from more important stories, most significantly, that of the killing of 18 year old Mike Brown by police in Missouri. It’s a cynical and condescending piece with a clear subtext that suggests if you care about Robin Williams death, you’re not paying attention to what’s important in the world. I don’t want to spend too much time on PZ’s article, but if you’re interested, there are some brilliant responses by Terry Firma, JT Eberhard, and Jerry Coyne (I particularly encourage you to read Jerry Coyne’s piece, it features a touching story involving Stephen Fry). I’m sure there are countless others as well.
But there’s an underlying problem here I do want to discuss, namely that of grief shaming. I see this often when it comes to celebrity deaths, though it can happen in less public ways as well. Basically, it boils down to this: Tragedy happens, and people who are affected by it react and a reasonable and understandable way. However, those who aren’t affected start to resent those who are grieving for focusing on what they think of as something immaterial. “Why could you care so much about some dumb actor when there are people being executed daily by extremists in Iraq?” is usually how this sentiment goes.
When it coms to celebrity deaths, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the popularity of the celebrity and the backlash against those who mourn their loss. Robin Williams was almost universally loved, so only the particularly misanthropic – like PZ Meyers – bemoan the public reaction. Heath Ledger was also pretty well respected, and the tragedy of his death was compounded by the lost potential of an actor who was, for the first time, revealing his incredible depth of talent. But since Ledger wasn’t as popular as Williams, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to see grumbling about our misguided cultural focus on celebrity.
The time I remember grief shaming to be at it’s all time worst was after the death of Paul Walker last year. I think I saw more complaints that anyone would dare care about some low-rate B movie star when there was so much more important going on through the world. People complained that his movies were terrible, and that anyone who grieved over his death should get their priorities straight.
In all these cases, there seems to be an underlying assumption that grief follows objective logical rules. Person A is this important, and is therefore worthy of this much grief. Person B is this closely associated with the deceased, and therefore is allowed to mourn a bit more than everyone else. Etc. etc. This article from a funeral director explains it eloquently.
“And I admit, I’m guilty of the same type of grief shaming and grief measuring. There’s been a few times when I’ve walked into a nursing home, hospital or home to see the grandchildren and children weeping over the body of a 90+ year old deceased person. And I want to say, “You know last week I buried a 15 year old boy who was struck by a car … that family has a right to grieve, but this person that you’re crying over … this person has lived 90 full years of life.”
Grief, however, isn’t logical, or objective. Grief is complex, it’s emotional, and it’s messy. We can’t decide who we get emotionally attached to, and we can’t chose how someone’s passing will affect us.
I was honestly quite surprised how much Paul Walker’s death affected me. It’s not as if I was a devoted fan, I just liked one or two of his movies. But when he died, so young and so pointlessly, it affected me. When I read stories like the time he saw a young couple shopping for an engagement ring, and when he found out that the husband was deploying to Iraq, anonymously paid $10,000 for their ring, it affected me. When I think that he was generally regarded as a likable, fun person who never did anyone any harm, and who made movies that were silly stupid fun, but nevertheless entertained people, it affected me. And when I read all over the place that I had my priorities wrong because I mourned his passing, it pissed me off. A lot.
I can’t for the life of me see the effective difference between writing an article online belittling someone’s grief over a celebrity and bursting in on someone’s funeral and telling a mourning family that there’s more important things going on in the world, they should just get over it, dammit!
This is not to say that what’s going on in the world isn’t important. The situation in Ferguson, MO is getting frighteningly out of hand. What’s happening in the Middle East is also horrifying. There is a lot going wrong in the world right now. Our grief over Robin Williams, doesn’t change any of that, though. Nor can any of that lessen the pain we feel over our loss. To belittle, judge, or criticize somebody for their grief shows a disturbing lack of empathy, and if there’s anything this world needs right now, it’s more empathy.