Let me preface this by saying that what I go on to say does not apply to Mr. Williams’ family and friends, who are undeniably in a state of deep personal grief, nor to those people who felt a genuinely deep connection to the man, but instead to all else.
Robin Williams died a few days ago, and by now you will have seen his face all over the news and the papers. It is unavoidable, this reaction, in the wake of a celebrity’s death. Many people, particularly on the internet, have professed a great deal of grief at his passing. I have no doubt that for some this grief is deep and personal and genuine. But for most of us, I believe, Mr Williams’ death culminated in a distant kind of grief, an impersonal kind of grief. We did not know him. We did not know what kind of person he was. We did not laugh with him and cry with him, we did not know the things which made him deeply unhappy nor the things which made him glad. Our idea of who he is as a person is a hazy amalgam of his film character personalities, his humour, happiness or candour in front of a camera. We did not know the man who was behind it, not really, and instead many cry for the memory of this popular, happy figure. We grieve only for a figure, and we grieve in only a very distant, disconnected way for a man we never knew at all.
It happens all the time, of course, and naturally happens most of all with celebrities. It happens because our constant exposure to a small snapshot of their lives leads us to believe that this parasocial relationship is anything more than one-sided, and that we know or understand these people whose lives we briefly glimpse through a heavily edited camera.
But we don’t.
This is, of course, in no way an indictment of people who are genuinely grieving for Robin Williams. I completely understand and respect that reaction. Nor am I saying he was horribly different to the benevolent, funny man he appeared to be; I am not. I know nothing about him at all save he was clearly deeply unhappy, and as often occurs in the world of celebrity he failed to obtain the help he desperately needed. What I am saying is that many people are simply being swept up in an aura of grief which does not belong to them, something which is more akin to passing on a yawn to someone who is not tired. I suppose I’m only able to be this critical because I am not grieving, because I am too young to have grown up with most of his films and because I never knew the man personally. This isn’t really a structured blog post or a comment on his passing, more a quiet observation on the phenomenon of grieving without grieving.
Of course, I’m self aware enough to know that this entire post might just seem unnecessarily cynical, clinical and badly timed, so if for some reason someone is reading this after I’ve been away so long, feel free to disagree.