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.