Why it's OK to grieve for a famous stranger.



Trigger warning: This post deals with suicide and may be distressing for some readers.


Grieving for a famous stranger is weird.

I get that.

Robin Williams was a famous stranger… and yet news of his death today has crushed me. The shock of it momentarily took the air from my lungs. Dramatic? Maybe. But genuine. I’ve had his face — scrunched up in laughter, as it so often was — in my heart all day.

You may feel unusually moved by the death of Robin Williams, too. And that’s OK. It’s not just because we’ve lost a rare and extraordinary comedian. It’s because we lost him to depression.

Police investigating the actor’s death say Williams most likely committed suicide. In his sixth decade of life, he chose death.

This was a successful, kind man with a TV show, a film in production, a full family, friends, and millions of fans. He had all the trappings of happiness, all the signs of satisfaction.

But in taking his own life, Williams proved that none of that matters, when you’re being tortured by depression. Mental illness does not discriminate. It’s savage and it’s powerful enough to knock out one of the funniest men on the planet.

Excuse my French, but that’s a fucking bleak reality. Especially at 8 o’clock this morning, when news broke of his death.

But by 5pm, the conversation had turned to how we can protect people from suicide. For that, I am grateful. #RUOK is currently trending worldwide on Twitter. It doesn’t take away the tragedy of Robin Williams’ death (and those three words can’t save someone on their own) but it’s heartening to see that millions of people have chosen today to take depression seriously.


That’s the power of a high-profile death. It forces us to remember how fragile we human beings truly are.

Williams struggled with depression most of his life. He fought addiction and checked into rehab as recently as three weeks ago. Over the years, it’s been reported that Williams had bipolar disorder, though he never publicly confirmed it. This was a deeply troubled man. But to look at him, you’d never suspect it.

If you ever saw Williams do stand up, you could be forgiven for assuming that he never got sad. He was infectiously, irresistibly happy. He made people laugh for a living. It’s always most confronting to see a jester struck down by clinical sadness.

Because depression does not manifest itself physically — its victims don’t limp or cough or lose a limb — it’s so easy to assume that anyone who looks happy is happy. It’s absolutely forgivable to think, But how could someone who makes so many people happy, possibly be sad? 

You might know someone like Robin Williams in your own life. In fact, given that 1 million Australians and 19 million Americans suffer from depression, you almost certainly do. They present as jovial and social, they make jokes, they laugh, they turn up to parties, and they function at work.

But a lot of people who go that far ‘up’ have to come down. Often the brightest, funniest people are struggling the most — and all they need is someone to see through the act.

RIP Robin Williams. Oh captain, my captain.

If you or a loved one need to talk to someone, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.