As I’m sure anyone who has been in contact with the world for the past few days knows, Robin Williams died on Monday of apparent suicide. It’s a very sad thing and I hope he’s found some peace. I’ve been surprised by the intensity of the outpouring of grief around his death. Many people I know were extremely affected by it and have experienced a great deal of sadness. I was not particularly. Although I have a few Robin Williams movies I loved from when I was a child, I didn’t feel that connection with him. Still, I feel a general sadness for a life wasted and the sadness of others.
What I wanted to talk about however is a phenomenon I’ve noticed as part of the reactions. It’s one I’ve seen not only in this particular instance but in almost every case of celebrity death and despite the numerous articles and blogs I’ve seen around the various facets of celebrity, I haven’t recently seen anything around this so I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring here. The phenomenon is pretty simple and seems to be an attempt to put yourself above those who are hurt by this event. There’s the “I obviously feel badly for his friends and family but it hasn’t affected me personally.” Or the more hard line “I’ve never been impacted by a celebrity dying, I just can’t understand why someone would be.”
I’ve seen these sentiments expressed in various ways and I think they represent something rather cold and cruel in our society, something that genuinely bothers me. This desire to show that you are somehow better than those who are wounded. Look, I think there are things that can probably be said about “TMZ culture” or however you’d like to phrase it. Maybe. I don’t care that much, to be honest. I think the danger of it is overstated and we’d do better to stop focusing on the evils of celebrity and start focusing on more important things. But when celebrities die, particularly people who have been involved in forms of art for many years, and particularly when the death is unexpected, that is not the same.
It does not make you a superior person to not be sad because someone has died. It also doesn’t make you a worse person. Your emotional responses to the death of someone you don’t know (or someone you do know) do not define whether you are a decent human being. But judging others for expressing the impact that someone’s life had on their own might.
I did not personally have that connection with Robin Williams, may he rest in peace. But when I saw the trailer for the new Phillip Seymour Hoffman movie? I still got a lump in my throat. I don’t actually know how long it’ll take me to accept that he’s gone. I have plans with my bestie to watch the new Roger Ebert documentary and when we do we have solemnly agreed that we will both cry like children. Because we loved him, because he meant something to us. The day I found out Roger Ebert died, I sat on my couch and sobbed for over an hour. I am tearing up right now thinking about it. This is the man who in many ways taught me how to love film, not just critically but joyfully. I still want to check his website every week. I can’t count how many movies I catch myself thinking “I wonder what Ebert thou… oh.”
There will be others. It’s a handful compared to the number of actors in Hollywood but there will be others whose deaths will leave a blank space for me, who will be a loss for me, as Robin Williams is to so many right now. I think that is a beautiful, amazing thing. Isn’t the best thing about art that we can share it and it becomes part of us, that it sometimes actually changes us? And part of that is accepting loss and grief, just like with any relationship.
I have no judgment for those who were not affected by this death. I wish nothing but hope and healing and peace for those who were. I hope for peace for his family. I hope that this can help spur productive discussion about depression and how dangerous it can be. But you are not a better person if you were not touched by this. If there’s nothing kind for you to say, please just don’t. It really is okay to just shut up.