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Justine Valinotti Headshot

What Robin Williams' Death Means to Me

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I normally don't pay much attention to what happens to celebrities. But Robin Williams' apparent suicide has left me with a grief I have not experienced over the death of anyone else I never knew personally.

At least some of my sadness is shared by many other people who recognize that he was, if you'll indulge me a cliché, a unique talent. Walt Whitman wrote, "I contain multitudes." Williams brought them to life -- sometimes momentarily, in warp-speed parades of politicians and priests, seventh-generation prep-school kids and off-the-boat immigrants, rappers and bank executives ; other times, in extended, individual portraits of housekeepers, soldiers, psychiatrists and teachers and, just as important, of the people around them. Best of all, his comic sketches were never mean-spirited: For all that he made light of the foibles and hypocrisies of the powerful, he never poked fun, as too many comedians do today, at people's misfortunes.

But my sadness over losing Williams is, perhaps, heightened by people in my own life -- two good friends and three friendly acquaintances -- who took their own lives. They left me with a sense of despair that other deaths did not. While I mourned my grandparents, a friend who recently succumbed to a brain tumor and others who lost battles with AIDS or cancer or were felled by heart attacks and accidents, I did not feel the same sense of having been left behind, naked and vulnerable (what, I believe, is meant by "Je suis desolee"), that I felt after one friend hanged himself and another overdosed, or the acquaintance who poisoned herself, the other who jumped off a bridge, and the one who closed the windows and turned on the oven without igniting the pilot.

When someone dies at an advanced age, after a life full of achievement and fulfillment (as Lauren Bacall did just after Williams left us), it leaves those who loved that person sad. However, it isn't a tragedy in the same way as deaths that came too soon, and from causes that we may feel we could have prevented. Notice how many of Robin Williams' family members, friends and colleagues were caught off-guard by the news of his death and, more important, by the way it happened. "He didn't seem sad." How many times have we heard this, not only about Williams, but about others who apparently or actually killed themselves? Or this: "He had everything going for him. Everybody loved him."

While that element of surprise and consternation distinguishes suicides from other deaths, it's not the only reason why people react to them as they do -- or as I'm reacting to Robin Williams' death. We also feel anger that we don't have when a 92-year-old goes to bed one night and doesn't wake up again. We feel as if someone stole something -- themselves -- from us. When the currents of life become even more treacherous than they normally are, we sometimes find spiritual sustenance from seeing someone else navigate them, especially if we feel that person shares, or at least understands, our struggles. "If she couldn't find a reason to live, how can I?" a friend wondered aloud after one of her friends (who happened to be one of the acquaintances I've mentioned) killed herself.

It seems like a fair question to ask after Robin Williams' death. People who knew him say that, in "real" life, he was the person we saw on-screen and stage: one who bore and brought joy and beauty. His generosity toward all sorts of people, including LGBTs and veterans, is well-documented. Sometimes it seems that such people are simply "too good for this world": As more than one person has suggested, what such people know and feel is too much for them -- or anyone -- to bear.

Perhaps that is the reason why suicides, particularly when we don't foresee them, leave us feeling sad, angry -- and helpless in ways that the deaths of elderly cancer patients don't (unless we're oncologists or surgeons). At the same time we feel robbed -- "He took himself away from us!" -- we wonder how we missed the signs that something wasn't right or wonder, as I do in about my old friend, what we could have said or done. Could we have shown our love, our appreciation, more than we did? Could we have staged an intervention? Could I have stayed even longer than I did at my friend's place on what would be the last night of his life? Could I have said something that might have helped him?

Of course, not having known Robin Williams personally, and not having any training or experience as a therapist or counselor, I don't think I could have stopped him, any more than I was able to stop my old friends or acquaintances. At least, that's what I tell myself about my friends and acquaintances. I'll never know for sure. By the same token, I don't think anyone -- whether inside or outside his circle -- will ever know what, if anything, they could have said or done that would have resulted in his being with us today.

That is, I believe, the tragedy of Robin Williams' -- and my old friends' -- deaths, and the source of the particular kind of grief and rage we feel about them.