More Than Mortal

The science of the human quest for meaning, significance, and self-transcendence.

Why Robin Williams Is Immortal

How we Cope with the Death of Others

The world was recently shocked by the apparent suicide of one of America’s great comedic talents. His family, friends, and all the fans that loved his work will be grieving for some time. However, one way that people will cope with this loss is by focusing on how Robin Williams remains and will always remain alive. Indeed, his wife has asked people to not focus on his death but instead focus on his enduring contributions.

This is how, as humans, we make sense of death. We keep those we have lost alive in our memories. We celebrate the contributions they have made and the legacies they have left behind. And this is not just the case for celebrities or famous people. We all impact the world in some meaningful way. And when we are gone, those that cared about us gain some comfort from this. It allows them to maintain a symbolic connection to us.

Humans are uniquely aware of their mortality. We know that we and all of the people we love will one day die. Thus, as much research in psychology has demonstrated, we go to great lengths to feel like we are living meaningful lives. In many of my posts I discuss the importance of the meaning motive. We are healthier and happier when we feel like are lives are meaningful, that we matter. However, I think it is also important to note that the meaning we find in life is also important to those we leave behind when we die. Through our contributions, big or small, we gain a sense of symbolic immortality, the feeling that though our bodies die, part of who we are remains alive. And this immortality is critical for the people who will miss us.

The death of Robin Williams is a reminder that even people who have money and fame are human. They struggle with many of the same insecurities and personal challenges that “regular” people grapple with. And rich or poor, famous or unknown, we are all mortal. But the death of someone like Robin Williams impacts so many people because so many were touched by his work. His work will remain though and people will continue to appreciate it. And this is how we will keep part of him alive. 

Clay Routledge is an associate professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University.

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