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It’s perhaps for the best that I’ve missed the social-media bubble surrounding the death of coveted comedian and entertainer Robin Williams. All Watchmen references aside I’d likely be the one dissenting voice to offer, only if provoked:

I didn’t really like Robin Williams as a performer.

Robin Williams

Yet, it would seem, I would have liked him tremendously as a person. A variety of remembrances, from Moises Kaufman (here) to the gaming community (ditto) have spoken out about the warm, generous, less than self-serious actor behind the zany characters. Williams had a “manic” nature few other actors could come close to in performance. His roles, while often played for laughs, reminded me uncomfortably of my father during his most extreme manic episodes of bi-polar disorder. There was little laughter for me in a film like Jumanji. Mostly distress, fear, and the reminder that even the greatest performative high has an uncomfortable edge when it returns home.

The unexpected death of a major star is always fit for cannibalism. It’s almost become rote that everyone respond with an outpouring of emotion, condolences, anecdotes, and probing pieces of journalism about the career, what could have been, and that only now do we fully understand the gravity of what we have lost. I think it’s important to be critical, however, of the way in which we discuss celebrity deaths, and particularly sensitive ones like overdoses and suicides.

Articles like this one by Slate (Here), which still contains (if you scroll properly) part of the original headline “I Bet Robin Williams Knew He Was Loved. Unfortunately, Love Doesn’t Cure Mental Illness”, continue to put me ill at ease. At the time this article was written there’d been no ruling on his death beyond “apparent suicide”, and I was frankly appalled that Slate would run an article which all but signed his death certificate and used the death as a sort of vague spring-board for some woman to write about her own experiences with depression. Not that it isn’t important for people to discuss our experiences, or for us to collectively reflect on the nature of mental illness in the wake of a beloved American actor who struggled with depression, but gosh. Could we wait for an official ruling on his death before we start diagnosing his end goal? How about not assuming you know how someone who just died felt in the days and moments leading up to their death?

My father, the same one who so uncomfortably mirrored Williams at his most manic, also died by hanging himself. It’s been over 500 days since and I still remember both the shock of the moment and the palpable sense of wonder in regards to what he was thinking as he lead up to that final moment and decision to end his life. If I was one of the family members of Robin Williams, his wife or daughter, I would be so frustrated to have random strangers write things like “I Bet Robin Williams Knew He Was Loved”. My only thought in the moment I read that, as another complete stranger to Robin Williams and his life, was “I Don’t Think You Know What the Fuck You’re Talking About”. The experiences and psyche of someone who dies by suicide aren’t some elaborate madlib we can just fill in by assumption and use as fodder to further discussion of our own problems. They deserve sensitivity, caution, and ultimately respect for the fact that when we discuss the death of a well-known celebrity (or heck, anyone) we run the risk of unintentionally doing them a disservice or hurting friends and family who may encounter those materials. Freedom of speech, of course, but also freedom to be sensitive. My father’s suicide was so mind-bogglingly complicated for me, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for the media maelstrom which speculated, often without sensitivity or care for authenticity, honesty, or good taste, on the death of a great comic actor who was also father, friend, and above all human.

The dominant emotion surrounding suicide, for me, was one of confusion and disbelief. How presumptuous and, yes, inappropriate, for writers with little regard or sensitivity to the judgment-laden world of suicide-discussion to offer such complete certainty as to why the man died. For the last week I feel I’ve had the brunt of suicide jammed in my face and, frankly, it rankles when people don’t approach the issue with caution or sensitivity. From the language of “committing”, to seeing that his daughter Zelda Williams had to shut down her social media accounts due to online trolling (Very upsetting) (something I once had to do during my father’s worst episodes while he was alive), to the disturbing moment of seeing “Robin Williams leaked suicide photo” as a major search term on Twitter… it’s bad enough to make you wish life came with a trigger warning.

I’ll never know what lead my father to that choice any more than the rest of us will know what lead Robin Williams to his. The reality is that suicide, and the attempts to understand it, can often lead us into answer-seeking and illogical territory. But as the family member of someone who died that way I can write that the dominant emotion I experienced afterwards was confusion. It still is. I can’t imagine how the Williams family must feel to see thousands, even millions, of strangers speculate on one of life’s most oblique enigmas with such maddening surety. The aftermath of suicide is an exercise in recognizing the limitations of our understanding and sewing up the black-hole of grief which a violent death manifests. I’ve barely discussed Robin Williams with anyone in this past week not because I have nothing to say, but because the shouting match to become most heard, most read, and most authoritative on the matter has become toxic and hurtful to me.

Writing about the dead shouldn’t be an opportunity to self-aggrandize or get easy clicks. At the least, it should be undertaken with the kind of trepidation fitting great people who were, ultimately, real and deserving of respect. Robin Williams will likely always hue too closely to my father for my own comfort, and it saddens me so deeply that their lives of courage and brilliance met with the same tragic end. In death, Robin Williams gets the earnest respect for me he never got in life. I have my father to thank for that, for the great lesson of empathy which has spawned in his wake, and those two men to thank for teaching me so much about what it means to be here.

Here’s another great article dealing with respectfully discussing celebrities and their personal turmoil. The author, Matt Zoller-Seitz, wrote one of the few articles I’ve read about Robin Williams which I felt was conducted respectfully: (http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/strong-enough-a-note-to-drug-abuse-concern-trolls-concerning-philip-seymour-hoffman)
(http://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/robin-williams-died-2014-63-possible-suicide)

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