When Celebrities Die

The death of Robin Williams is sad, in the way that the death of any human being is sad. ‘No man is an island, entire of himself. . .’ Sadder still is the thought that he may have taken his own life. Only those who have plumbed the depths of depression themselves will truly understand how bleak and unfathomable was his feeling of isolation and hopelessness. But the public outpouring of grief and sentiment at his death may make some uneasy as it does me. It is not that I question the genuineness of the emotions expressed — the sense of connectedness many feel, the feeling of loss — but I wonder whether they say more about the living than the dead. Are the protestations of grief partly a defence against one’s own death; and is there any way in which the underlying fears can be lessened?

If this seems strange to you, let me give you an example. As many readers know, I have leiomyosarcoma, a rare but aggressive cancer which is not curable. The reactions of my friends, and of the community’s friends, have not always been the same. Some are clearly upset but know me well enough to realise that, however open I may be about what is happening, the last thing I want is oodles of sympathy (I get that from the dog, and it is much easier to deal with.) Others are so keen to know every detail, constantly suggesting alternative therapies and ‘what worked for Aunty Flo’, that I have sometimes thought, ‘This is about you, not me at all: you are worried about your own death, not mine; and you somehow hope that by poring over the details of my illness you will protect yourself against the same happening to you.’ When I think that, a huge wave of compassion goes out towards the person concerned, because there is nothing as dreadful as fear, especially a fear that cannot be articulated, and I am moved to pray for them.

I think that when celebrities die, some of these unarticulated fears surface. We grieve for the dead as a way of grieving for ourselves. Perhaps that is why I cannot find it in me to condemn even the most uncongenial forms of expression of that grief. But, as a Catholic, I can’t let it rest there. I do believe (most of the time) that life is eternal and nothing ultimately lost; that there is hope, even in the darkest of times. I believe, too, in the duty of praying for the dead. So, this morning, in addition to praying for Robin Williams’ family and the thousands who feel they have lost a friend, albeit more of a screen friend than a flesh-and-blood friend, I shall pray for the repose of his soul. That, for me, is the real connection between us: the union of prayer between the living and the dead, a union that surpasses every distinction of age, race and, indeed, belief. Requiesact in pace. Amen.

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11 thoughts on “When Celebrities Die”

  1. With a recent cancer diagnosis myself, I can sympathise with your second paragraph. Before this last fortnight, I’d never in my life been told of so many who have died of this disease and never, in almost the same breath, been told to stay so very positive. Thank you for reminding me that compassion and prayer are the best response, but Robin Williams would surely agree that laughter is also good medicine.

  2. I felt very touched when I found out about Robin Williams’ death. As you say, depression is quite ‘bleak and unfathomable.’
    I started feeling uncomfortable when I realised that it was so much easier for me to feel for his death, because he is famous and charming and witty and part of our popular culture, than it is to think of all those who are going through calamitous situations, witnessing the deaths of family and friends.
    So Robin Williams’ death helped me in a way connect with all those other deaths of which I will never hear but which are there nevertheless.
    As to our fear of death, yes, it is here — a great teacher of sort.

  3. I think for me it’s sad simply because he was a genuinely very funny man, and actually rather good at it. It’s sad because he died earlier than he needed to, and it’s sad because his psycho-emotional state was despite such brilliance, seemingly untouched or hugely vulnerable. No one should be like this, but huge numbers are. That says so much about our society.

  4. Laughter is a very good medicine, however I know that depression is not a laughing matter. When I was waiting for an ultrasound scan ten years ago the words of ‘Soul of my Saviour’ came into my mind – guard and defend me from the foe malign and I had a good laugh. I’ll keep you and the community in my prayers.

  5. You are so right in your assessment. I have counseled suicidal people, and know intimately the depths of grief and despair. Ultimately we are all in the hands of God and God loved us forever. Nothing can destroy God’s love. The crucifixion of God’s Son reveals that to us. RIP Robin and all who die by their own will. Grant them peace.

  6. Thank you for your comments, and your prayers. I have spent much of the day thinking about the fact that if Robin Williams, with all the helps available to him, couldn’t cope with the stresses and strains of life and was plunged into the hell of depression, how hard it must be for those in Syria or Iraq, for example. As Claire says, his death helps us to connect with all those anonymous ones for whom we must pray.

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