Everyone it seems in the comedy, acting and even the political world has chimed in on the passing of Robin Williams. That’s the impact his work, his life and his death have had.
Every thing I have read has been heartfelt. From Paul F. Tompkins’ moving reminiscence of meeting and working with his hero to Second City Toronto alumni recalling the magical night Robin “dropped in” to share the stage with them. Many of my Canadian standup comedian friends also had the chance to meet Mr. Williams (I can’t imagine he would want to be called this, but that is the respect he earned in the comedy community) at various shows across the country. I was never so lucky. I, like millions of others around the world, never met Robin but feel as if I “knew” him through his various characters in movies and on stage.
The added element that his death is an “apparent suicide” resulting from severe depression seems at first unfathomable. Here was a man who emitted pure joy. Who put people into convulsions of laughter with hardly a mean-spirited jibe or personal “target” to his humour as so much of standup comedy these days is.
How could someone so joyous, so inspiring to so many be so “down” and hopeless himself?
I don’t have the answer to that. Just as I didn’t have the answer when my brother Mark took his own life at the age of 24, when I was 14. Mark was the 3rd of 5 sons, younger than 2 of us, older than 2 of us and by far my funniest big brother. His impressions were dead on. He loved joking and making people laugh. He left for the United States and worked under the table near the end of his young life. In short, he lived a life that sounds like that of an aspiring comedian from Canada. But he wasn’t a comedian. He was a car salesman. He could sell pretty much anything to anybody. And he was the most fearless person I have ever known. He enjoyed challenges and greeted them with “no problem” when most would give up completely.
So when the call came that he had hung himself, my dad, who I had never seen cry in my life, broke down in tears while I sat stone-faced. I couldn’t understand it. I wouldn’t believe it. Mark was the strongest, funniest person I knew in the world. Our older brother Larry, who was also Mark’s best friend, had just spoken to him a day or two before. Nothing had “seemed” wrong.
But obviously it was. And Mark was too strong a person to ask for help.
So what does all this mean? Are we supposed to assume that everyone who makes people happy is sad? That perhaps the pressure of making everyone around them laugh is somehow a cry for help? No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think “depression” is misunderstood as a temporary state of mind when it is clearly a deep-seated mental illness.
The good that will hopefully come out of Robin Williams’ death is to get people talking about depression certainly but more specifically to get families and friends reaching out to each other and just talking. Not just dismissing someone’s depression as a temporary “blip”. And not letting them get away with saying things are “fine” when they are not.
There is professional help of course and thank goodness for that. Hopefully, soon, there will be more. But family taking care of family first, above all else, may be the most immediate and powerful shift in mindset that we can all make.
All of this is NOT to say Mr. Williams’ friends and family were not “there for him”. Just as my family was certainly there for Mark. But the more this positive mindset is reinforced, not just assumed, then maybe the more likely the strongest, funniest and most fiercely independent people among us may be willing to call us when they’re feeling weak and sad. And the more likely we’ll be to answer and listen, seriously listen.