Grieving in the Absence of Grief


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.

7 thoughts on “Grieving in the Absence of Grief

  1. sula362

    I think I understand what you are trying to say here. It is a good point that people seem to think they have a connection with a person, because he is a well known actor or whatever, yet they do not know them. I guess it comes down to this whole thing about posting these grief messages on social media anyway. Is it appropriate? Is it trying to portray something about the person posting the message rather than who it is about? Or do people just get swept up in it, posting because others do, not questioning it. Maybe it is because they will also post pictures of their dinner. Their lives are on display on the pages of FB or through Twitter, whether others want to see it or not. That really does say more about the messenger than the message.

    1. dlaiden Post author

      I think that may be what I was getting at, and perhaps it says something about me that it bothers me, this need for people to share absolutely everything over social media and the extent to which what they’re sharing is genuine. Because it does seem at the moment that everyone feels compelled to make a post or a tweet or whatever about Mr. Williams, and most of the grief (that I have personally seen) seems to be less about true sadness at the end of his life or about his mental health, and more of an attempt to keep up with what everyone else is doing (though of course as I said, many people are genuinely sad and I’m not in anyway condemning them). And yet in a way I suppose that is what I am presently doing, with my own post, though I am not actually expressing grief or directly commenting on his death. I almost think that all of this expression of grief over social media hides, in a way, the issue of mental illness and how it is treated instead of confronting the problem. Then again, that’s also an extremely cynical attitude and I think I’m just in a very cynical mood.

  2. Deri

    I guess I feel sad. Not grief. Sad because most people who top themselves do so alone; suicide is the ultimate expression of loneliness. Sad because Robin Williams said many things in interview and through his humour that said exactly how I feel – and now I have to say things myself with insight, originality and precision. Harder than “what he said”. Sad for those who knew and loved him; I know how they are hurting.

    1. dlaiden Post author

      And this sort of sadness I can fully and understand and appreciate. You’re genuinely sad at the lengths he had to go to, and it is truly sad that with the world watching him, it did not seem as if he felt that he had anyone he could go to for help. That is saddening. I feel and understand that sadness. And you’ve lost someone alike you in thought, a mouthpiece, and that is difficult too. One of the worst things about being a human being with complex emotions is not knowing exactly how to express those feelings to others, because when others can’t understand your problems and feelings you have to keep them to yourself, and when you have to do that it’s difficult to know what to do with or about them. I’ve lost friends and family and almost lost others to suicide, so I feel genuinely sad at the fact that Robin Williams couldn’t get the help he needed. I also feel sad because I know how those close to him must be hurting. I think it’s because of this that it bothers me to see people who give a quick tweet or post about grieving for him – I can understand feeling sadness, I share it, but I’ve always felt that grief was something deeper, something reserved for those who knew personally the deceased. The sadness will gradually fade, but grief is personal and long-lasting and non-existent for many people who’ve been expressing it. But perhaps I’m overthinking this and I’m just being pedantic.

  3. Thomas

    I think it’s interesting to think about the type of “grieving in the absence of grief” you raise in this post. While I see what you mean when you write about it in a clinical sense, I feel like it’s up to every individual to determine how they feel about Robin Williams’s passing, or how they feel about how others feel about it. You (not just you, as in the author of this post, but you as in anyone) can’t just tell people to stop feeling a certain way – if people feel sad about a favorite actor of theirs passing away, they’re going to feel sad. It might not be too deep or genuine or altruistic, but there it is. While people say not to politicize people’s deaths, for me it’s great and disheartening at the same time to see mental illness taken a little bit more seriously, now that a comedian was ravaged by its grip.

    Not the most coherent comment, but it makes me happy to read your writing again! Hope you are well.

    1. dlaiden Post author

      I definitely see what you mean. I certainly did not intend to come across as telling anyone to stop feeling a certain way though, I was rather trying to express (not the most coherently) the strange kind of cynicism I can’t help feeling towards people when they do. I do like genuine feelings. I don’t mind feelings or motivations being shallow or not deep, but I do mind when they’re presented as being deeper than they are. I can’t do anything about it, but hey, I can try and explore my feelings; what else are blogs for? 😉 About mental illness being taken seriously, I don’t know that it is. The thing about events like this are that the public eye will linger on it for a while, and then move on. It’s just how the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Cory Monteith and countless others haven’t done much to seriously change attitudes to mental health or drug abuse. But again perhaps this is my inner cynic speaking, and things might actually change after this. I don’t know. I guess every small change sets the stage for the big thing, right? Anyway, thanks for the comment, it’s always nice to see and think about alternative views. And haha, you’re not alone in the incoherency department. Yup, trying to slowly make my way back in…I might have some interesting posts soon considering I’ll be starting university in October.

  4. NicoLite Великий

    Long time no read indeed. I know exactly what you mean. I don’t care much about celebrities. Though Robin Williams’ passing did touch me. He has brought me much joy with Mrs. Doubtfire, which I must have watched a hundred times, and in The World According to Garp he revealed his true class as a film actor. But it is true also that I am not struck with grief.


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