The news of actor Robin Williams’s death reached me via text message from my husband, right at the end of my work day. I drove home in somber silence, recalling snippets of the gifted star’s movies and improv. Robin Williams was brilliant, and he left all of us a legacy of joy and laughter. Many of his movie roles also confronted us with serious questions about life: war, mental illness, parenting, learning. When I consider his films and the long arc of his career, two themes seem to emerge are “what really matters?” and “laughter helps,” even in the most dire of circumstances.
In death, as in his work, Robin Williams leaves us with complex questions and no easy answers. The media went into immediate overdrive, with some citing the “demons” that led him to suicide. There has been a great deal of emphatic and helpful commentary challenging misguided and outdated views of depression and addiction as “demonic,” which still hold sway among some. Would most of us believe that cancer, or a broken bone, diabetes, even AIDS, are “demons” we need to fight? I Doubtfire it very much!
We properly understand natural mechanisms of disease, contagion, and accidents, because of science and medicine. Yet mental disorders and addictions continue to occupy a space somewhere between science, faith, and superstition, often hindering treatment and piling shame and judgment on people who suffer already. Even today, some have attacked Williams and his family on these cruel premises, despite his long sobriety.
News has emerged that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease. We will never know, nor should we, whether or to what extent this influenced Robin Williams to take his own life. In our grief, a search for easy answers, blame, or tidy explanations might make us feel better for a time.
What matters more, I believe, is whether we can bring compassion to the conversation: compassion for his family, and for ourselves in our own struggles that have no easy answers. In the end, it seems to me that offering our care and our presence matters most, so no one is left isolated and judged as they confront life’s deepest challenges.