On Robin Williams and the End of Life

In reading people’s reflections on Robin Williams, I’m amazed at how many people met him in “real life”. Nearly everyone has a story. Case in point. In the summer of 1997, our family was walking across the UNC Chapel Hill campus when I saw a crowd gathering. It was Williams on a break from filming Patch Adams. It didn’t matter that there were only twenty of us, he was “on”. My infant daughters were unimpressed until I told them he was Aladdin. In a few years, Mrs. Doubtfire would loop in our house for months on end.

I propose we make t-shirts for the minority of people ripping Williams for being selfish. The shirts could say, “I’m clueless about mental illness in general and severe depression in particular.” Or “I struggle to listen and learn.” Or “I lack understanding and empathy.” That way we could side step them altogether. When you don’t understand something like suicide, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, it’s admirable. We’d all be better off if we demonstrated more curiosity and humility.

I’m far from a mental health expert, but I’m indebted to some of my first year college writing students for teaching me about depression. Other people, like Molly Pohlig, continue to teach me about it. I’ve learned, as sad as it is, some people get so depressed they think they’re doing their family and friends a favor by ending their life.

Journalists writing about Williams often reference recent suicide statistics which I find staggering. Especially for my peers, white men, 50-54, who have the highest rate of suicide. We have to get better at identifying and helping the most susceptible among us.

A positive thought. In part, Williams will live on through his incessant television and film work. That’s a cool aspect of being a successful artist. An easily accessible legacy. Today, in the U.S., I’m struck by how we ignore the elderly and quickly forget the deceased.

In thinking about Williams’s legacy, I’ve thought some about my own. Initially I thought, if anyone wanted to remember me, all they’d have is lots of academic publications including a lengthy doctoral dissertation. And no one loves me enough to revisit those! In all likelihood, not even the occasional newspaper or magazine essay, or this blog’s archive, will live on.

If I’m lucky, I suppose, some aspects of my kind and caring Mrs. Doubtfire loving daughters will remind people of me on occasion. Somewhere in Florida or Indiana my sister is saying to herself, “It’s not all about you.” Since she’s right, more than likely then, like most people, I’ll be forgotten in relatively short order.

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