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Why We Are Still Grieving Robin Williams

The message of this post is that you are valued when you feel valueless.

As the days pass, it's still not any easier to accept Robin Williams' death. In fact, in ways it's becoming more difficult. It hangs heavy in the air. The stark reality and reverberating magnitude of his loss is like a wrecking ball, slamming into our collective consciousness over and over again, magnifying the other violent, painful, crazy situations and excruciating losses going on in the world. What makes Robin Williams a different kind of loss is that so many of us associate him with joy and laughter, not death and despair. Robin Williams belonged to us. We knew him, we loved him, we lost him and we're grieving not only his loss but all the losses we have endured that we can't make sense of.

Robin Williams made me laugh harder, with more amazement, amusement and awe than any other entity I have ever encountered who was deliberately trying to make me laugh. He lifted our spirits every single time we saw him on TV, doing standup, Comic Relief, in his movies, his collaborations, his narratives, his extraordinary acts of human kindness all over the world, his mind-bending improvisations on talk shows, in movies, on TV, on the radio, in other words, everywhere. This man did not disappoint. A scathingly brilliant wit coupled with compassion for his fellow human beings is how he is described by those who knew him. I don't know anyone in whom that particularly rare combination of extraordinary brilliance, sensitivity, compassion, philanthropy, and approachability exists. The sweetness and kindness of this man, as well as our adoration of him are  absolutely epic. 

We were ripped off, because he contributed so richly to our lives, and we were not given the chance to try to help him feel better, nor did we have a chance to give back anything even close to what he gave us, on and off the stage. It's profoundly hard to lose someone who inspired us throughout our formative years and beyond, as a symbol of pure unadulterated talent, the heights that a gifted human being can reach. He could blow the roof off the place with words and physical expressions. We didn't have the chance to tell him what he meant to us. It means we have to sit with our sadness, our dismay, our shock. We are stuck with just how painfully unresolved this loss is.

If only we had known, we could have shared with him that despite being blinded for much of his life by his own pain, he lit the way for others to get through theirs. We could have told him that absolutely nothing would be worse than the act of taking his own life. How does it make sense that he left us? How did he not understand that whatever was happening in his world, there were many more rewarding moments to come? "Just hang in there, Robin,"'is what we so much wish he could have heard through the haze of desperation to escape his pain. We didn't get the chance to make him know that he is a treasure – that he just can't leave us by his own means. No way, it's not fair. 

What I keep coming back to is just how far gone in his head he had to be to steal himself from us. As we start to gather the pieces of information and opinions as to what happened, we are left with a series of possibilities that may, or did, contribute to the orchestration of his untimely death. We are left with having to understand why. We are left with having to make sense of how he could do what he did, when he was and is adored, beloved, iconic. Reasons for his loss have been bandied about, because people generally feel better when they have definitive answers as to how and why a death unfolds. 

In a murder or an accidental death, it is far easier to pinpoint what happened to lead to the death, as you can retrace the course of events. In a suicide, what kills the person is what lays inside their head. And as much as we try, that is something we will never truly know. 

It could have been a million things, and it likely was. You cannot be an awe-inspiringly brilliant talent as Robin Williams was and will always be, without having an appreciation for just how impulsive you have to be to generate that level of energy, acrobatics, grace, and hilarity. Your mind works faster than the speed of sound, and there's so much in there at any given time, that without outlet, it becomes overloaded. There's an urgency to express yourself, an urgency to act, in part to release the tension that has gotten pent up in there. His extraordinary gifts allowed him to translate, and to channel his impulsivity into layered, textured, mind-numbing improvisation. 

But being impulsive is also dangerous, because the desire to regulate it, or heighten it, or numb it with substances becomes a very enticing prospect. Anyone who struggles with impulsivity understands how challenging, and often necessary it is to regulate it so as to get through the day as efficiently as possible. For Robin, at this stage in his life, it became even more challenging to manage impulses when he had both a lightening fast brain that challenged what is possible, and a humanity, and  sensitivity that compelled him to be profoundly concerned about those around him, and how his actions and his fate affected them. He was a person who not only thrived on making those around him laugh, in all the real life roles he played, as well as when he performed, in nearly all scenarios. Robin saw it as his responsibility to leave those around him better than he found them. His mouth and his body have been the vehicle for his talent, what he used to bring each of us to the edge of sublime, clever laughter and joy. But there was pain in his head, some of which we understand, some of which we will never know. I don't know much about the important people in his life who he lost during his lifetime, and what those losses meant to him. We can only imagine how losing John Belushi, for one, his close friend and fellow comedy warrior who succumbed to death too soon while on a drug binge with Robin. Losing your best friend because in part you were so wasted yourself that you didn't even realize he was dying is something that inevitably stays with you for the rest of your life. Who really knows how that loss, and other losses he suffered sat in his head all this time. 

I remember reading somewhere that for him, comedy was the great uniter, and the great distractor, because he could use his comedy to keep people at arm's length from his pain. And he was a master at using it that way. He described a painful, lonely childhood infused with shame and self-consciousness. His comedy and his talent became his respite, his life force, his outlet. He was so good at it that he could take command of his surroundings, capture, and captivate our attention, even divert it at his will. That ability may have served to help him feel less shameful in a day-to-day way in his life, because he had ways of distracting himself and others from it, as his career unfolded.

Then I try to picture what it would be like to receive a diagnosis of Parkinsons and to be confronted with the idea that having your most life-affirming outlet and the most vital expression of your identity, your physical comedy, be threatened. It had to feel like comedy was all he had to offer and he could not bear to disappoint us. I imagine, for Robin, that his physicality was also one of the healthier outlets he used to manage the level of impulsivity that was part of his make-up. He had been able to find ways that saved him; self-preserving ways to manage his impulsivity. The prospect of eroding physically was probably akin, in the moments before his death, to feeling like he was ceasing to exist. Leading up to his death I imagine that the worst times for him were the times when he was forced to be quiet - to shut down because of relapse, depression, and a myriad of other feelings and events in life. For that critical  period in time leading up to his death, he lost sight of where the exits from his brain were located. The idea of him sitting alone, stunted, stuck in his pain, while the interior of his brain probably looked like a lit up pinball machine on tilt. It became too much. He overloaded.

Take that and add to it that the nature of his comedy, as sharp and sardonic as it could be, there was a kind, generous spirit with genuine respect for human and animal-kind behind it. His humor was so pure, in part, because it was devoid of hostility. He could take you to the top of the moment, help you make fun of yourself, but never did he make you feel bad. The kind, generous, loving heart that all of his dear friends attest to, and every vibe I have ever gotten from watching him perform is that he was a mensch. How can a mensch stay past his welcome (as he must have perceived it then) and inconvenience everyone? Better he should go, so that he doesn't burden us further by being forced to watch him deteriorate.

I imagine his kindness and generosity were such that he didn't want to burden anyone any further than he already had, in whatever way he saw himself as burdening people. And who was he going to be if he was now faced with losing his capacity to be a physical comedian – to have that surgically precise, magical, ridiculously graceful agility that he had, and to know he was losing it? In his mind, between impulsivity, lost sobriety riddled with shame, a new diagnosis of Parkinsons, discord in his family and other areas of his life, the pain and loss, despair and trauma, and all the other pieces of the puzzle that we will never know because they belonged exclusively to him, all came together and compelled him to leave us. Being a transcendent talent who used more than the average amount of his brain at any given moment, and all the implications that came with the responsibility of being him overtook him, and compelled him to take the ultimate exit strategy.

It was too much for Robin Williams to love as much and as deeply as he did. In losing sobriety, he was stripped of his defense against forces that left him feeling vulnerable. He short-circuited and he took a piece of us with him. We so wish he could have felt how we would be there for him, that he was more than a comedic icon to us, that he was a fellow human being in pain that lost sight, and might have felt he was losing control of the outlets he so desperately needed to be feel in command of his life. 

The most important message in this post is not necessarily about Robin Williams; it is that you are valued when you feel valueless. You are loved when you feel unloved or unlovable; and if we had the opportunity, each of us would have tried to show Robin Williams this love and value.

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Dr. Lachmann on Facebook

 

Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in NYC specializing in psychotherapy.

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