Like the rest of the world, I am still coming to terms with the sudden death of one of my own personal inspirations, the amazing Robin Williams. From “Mork and Mindy” until his death just days ago, Robin has felt like a part of my life and my children’s lives for decades.
Any time I was ever asked who I would love to have dinner with out of any person, living or dead in the world, Robin Williams was top of my list.
I loved that he was afraid and vulnerable.
I loved that he found a way to laugh at himself and the world.
I loved how brightly he shone and how willing he was to take risks and put himself out there, way, way out there in his own unique way.
A constant source of laughter, talent, vulnerability and courage who struggled like the rest of us to make sense of the world and deal with pain, addiction, loneliness and depression.
I loved that he was brave enough to show the power of how deeply and profoundly you can change and touch peoples lives by having the courage to be yourself.
In fact, Robin’s performance as the wonderfully raw and real therapist in “Good Will Hunting”, was one of my major inspirations to become a therapist myself.
Celebrities seem to live in a different world than us.
A world that we think should keep them safe from being touched by the things that hurt the rest of us with more people and money and resources to help protect them and get them back on track if they do go astray.
A world where they are loved and celebrated and rich and famous so surely they MUST be happy.
Even though we have seen time and time again that being a celebrity does not protect you.
Even though we have seen time and time again that it brings enormous pressure, expectation, constant scrutiny and intrusion that many, many celebrities crack beneath its weight and fall victim to addiction, mental illness and suicide.
Every time a much loved celebrity like Robin Williams dies, especially if the death feels sudden or “preventable” the number of people needing support rises as mass grief, shock and the search for answers begins so that we can understand why.
When the death is by suicide, it feels so much harder to deal with and comprehend because the why can never truly be known.
We want there to be answers and explanations.
We want someone or something to blame.
We want to try to make sense of it all and deal with the shock and the feelings of abandonment and betrayal that can come when someone makes the decision to end their life.
We feel all of the natural reactions to that death including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and the struggle for acceptance.
But a celebrity death is different because even though the person may have been so seemingly present in our lives through their art and media and performance, our relationship with them is totally one-sided.
We are not part of their inner circle of family, friends, workmates or acquaintances.
We loved them and idolized them and admired them from a distance and constructed our own ideas of who we believed them to be.
We feel like we know them, but the truth is, we don’t. Yet the loss still feels so real and personal.
Unlike the death of someone actually in our lives, we have no seemingly legitimate right to grieve them, no valid reason to feel so shocked, no excuse to feel so overwhelmed ,so deeply saddened by the death of someone who never even knew that we existed.
Which is why the death of a celebrity that you felt connected to feels so difficult to deal with because your pain, your sense of shock, of grief, of denial and anger though incredibly real and valid, is somehow seen as stupid, out of proportion or “silly. ”
Unlike the death of someone we actually know, there is no funeral to attend or ceremony to take part in, where you can share and acknowledge your pain and talk about the loss of the person and what they meant to you and share your memories with except to post on social media.
There is no formal acknowledgement, support or legitimizing of the level of grief you may feel by family, friends or colleagues who may just tell you to “get over it.”
You are not expected or encouraged to take time off work to deal with your grief and adjust and allow yourself to mourn and heal.
You can even feel guilty or ashamed at how grief stricken you feel because unlike the death of someone you actually know, there is no personal sense that the grief that you feel is valid, real and justified to the rest of the world.
After all, they were “just a celebrity”.
So here are some things that you can do to help yourself.
- Give yourself permission to grieve.
Feelings and emotions do not make “logical sense”. Telling yourself that you “shouldn’t feel something” is not helpful and is totally impossible. What you feel is real, regardless of what others may think.
Like any other loss, you will navigate your way through the stages of grief which include Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance as categorized by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and you will find yourself swinging back and forth between them. There is no logical progression.
Cry if you need to and want to.
Tears are profoundly and deeply expressive and healing.
Grief is often like a wave, it comes, overwhelms and is gone only to rise up again. Do the best that you can to ride the waves and be gentle with yourself as you do so.
- Give yourself time and space to grieve.
Take a personal day if you can.
Try to eliminate things from your schedule that you don’t have to do.
Be kind, gentle and supportive of yourself. Remember, your grief, your sense of loss is real to you.
Write or journal about how you feel. It will take time to feel “real”, for the impact of the loss to really sink in.
When a celebrity dies, that feeling of “unreality” or “it can’t be true” can be the most difficult one to deal with so give it time to truly sink in and process.
Remember: Shock is a normal and natural part of grief and bereavement.
- Create your own ritual to honor the person that feels meaningful to you.
One of the key things that attending funerals does, is give us a sense of completion and finality.
A time to pay our last respects and share support, our grief and celebrate the memories and the life of the person who has died with others who knew and loved them.
When a celebrity we loved dies, it is up to us to provide a meaningful ritual of remembrance and celebration of our own.
Some of the ways that people do this is to organize a tribute with other fans or take part in a fan club based remembrance event.
Others ways that people find meaning and honor and respect the celebrity they admired are: getting a tattoo, creating art work, writing blog posts or poetry, planting a specific flower or garden or creating their own ceremony at home.
The beauty of creating your own remembrance or joining with others is that you are taking time to formally recognize and honor what the person meant to you, thanking them for their gifts and talents and saying a final goodbye.
This can be an incredibly healing part of moving forward with your feelings of grief and bereavement.
- Finding Forgiveness.
When anyone that we love dies, we can’t help but play the “what if” game.
What if they had left home sooner?
What if they never got on the plane/in the car/on the trip?
What if they had reached out and called someone?
What if they had only quit smoking/drinking/drugging?
As difficult as it can seem, being angry with and feeling guilt about the person who died is all part of the grieving process and playing the “what if” game is just part of the Denial/Acceptance aspect of dealing with death.
In every death, there will be the need to find forgiveness, both to ourselves and to the person who died in our relationship with each other.
The things left undone, the words left unsaid, the arguments that were never resolved or the reconciliation that never happened.
When the death comes from suicide however, it adds so many more dimensions of “what if” and actively brings in judgement, blame, anger, shame and condemnation.
Suicide is considered one of our “taboo” subjects.
In religious communities, it can mean shame, judgement, not being able to be buried or have a funeral in the faith of that person or community.
It can add an extra layer of pain and grief to people who believe that their loved one is now suffering eternal hell or damnation and to families left behind who feel deprived or denied the love and support of their community and faith because of the “shame” or “sin” of suicide.
It can feel like a selfish, cowardly escape from the world, leaving a mess of guilt, pain, questioning and blame for those left behind as well as investigations, police involvement and legal issues as well as speculation, rumor and gossip.
Suicide can be an incredibly difficult death to accept, understand, process and ultimately to forgive.
Here is my view.
You can never, ever truly know or feel the depth of any other persons struggle, sorrow, challenges or pain.
You can theorize, empathize, sympathize or believe you know but you can’t.
When someone commits suicide we want there to be answers and often, we want someone or something to blame.
At these times, all you can do is accept that you really can’t know, understand that your questions can never be answered and just do your best to make peace with that and find forgiveness if you can.
If you can’t, you can choose to forgive yourself for not being able to forgive.
- Reach out for help.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Having just one session with an empathic, experienced counsellor to talk through your feelings of grief, loss and pain with can make a MASSIVE difference to how you deal with celebrity death.
Organizations like our own lifeline here in Australia and around the world, have extra staff and shifts standing ready to help those who want to reach out.
Please, reach out.
The number for lifeline Australia is 13 11 14.
Don’t hesitate to seek out the assistance available to you in your home state or country.
Grief for a celebrity is real.
Honor any grief you are feeling. Talk about it. Be kind and gentle and supportive to yourself.
You don’t need to struggle alone.
Many therapists like myself have sessions available on Skype. If you feel that your grief is not subsiding, if you are struggling to make sense of it all, if you are feeling overwhelmed, feeling suicidal, feeling depressed, alone and in pain please – REACH OUT.
Make the call that could save or change your life.
Grief about the death of a celebrity is not shameful, stupid, silly or deserving of guilt.
It is a normal, natural response to losing someone whom you loved, respected, admired and will miss being physically present in the world.
There is absolutely no shame in that.
Here is my favorite memory of Robin Williams