Why Robin Williams’s Passing Affects Us

I’m not usually fazed by celebrity deaths. Usually at the most I think, “That’s a shame. He or she was very talented.” I call to mind their movies or songs. And then I usually move on with my day. After all, I didn’t know the celebrity personally. Of course, we always feel like we know them because of the familiarity on our TVs and radios.

I was walking somewhere when I saw the headline that Robin Williams had passed away. I stopped. I paused. I started walking again, mechanically, and a few minutes later I realized that something was different.

Robin Williams was a huge part of my childhood. I know I’m not alone in that. My social media feeds have exploded in ways I’ve never seen before. With him gone, childhood feels so much further away.

I think the reason his death feels so real and painful isn’t because, like all deaths, it’s a reminder of our mortality. The reason is because, in some ways, his passing represents the passing away of our collective childhood. The word “childhood” is the one I’ve seen associated most with this brilliant man in everyone’s tributes.

His filmography is so vast I won’t even try to mention every role. But I will mention the ones that come to mind, for me, most immediately.

Despite being a great comedic genius, a lot of his work felt heartfelt and genuine. Maybe it’s because most of my friends are my generation that I’ve seen so many postings on Facebook and Twitter about him.

"O Captain! My Captain!"

Robin Williams, through his characters, was a surrogate parent for many of us. He was a father figure… and famously a mother figure as well.

In Aladdin, he was a ‘90s update of a fairy godmother, Al’s genie godfather. His impact wasn’t the fact that he granted Al’s three wishes—The impact was that he genuinely wanted Al to be happy. (Images of Genie and Aladdin hugging are all over social media right now, unsurprisingly.)

He was the therapist in Good Will Hunting and the teacher in Dead Poets Society. In Jumanji, he was the grown version of a young boy trapped in a board game. He came to the rescue of two children playing a game they didn’t understand. In this role, he was simultaneously a child and a leader—Sound familiar yet? In Hook, he was Peter Pan grown up, a man out of touch with his past and with his children. He rescued them of course. Perhaps most poignantly, he was a recently deceased man searching the afterlife for his wife and children in What Dreams May Come.

"Think one happy thought, and you'll fly like me..."

“Think one happy thought, and you’ll fly like me…”

He also took on roles that in less capable hands would’ve been completely farcical or downright offensive. Not many actors could have brought both camp and sincerity to the gay father in The Birdcage. (I suppose all those years ago Robin Williams taught us that you could be a gay icon without actually being gay or a diva.)

And don’t pretend you could imagine anyone else in the role of Mrs. Doubtfire. A key part of a good disguise story is—If you met someone you knew and loved and they didn’t recognize you, would they grow to love you? Would your appearance matter, or would they connect with the person inside? 

I’m rambling, but Robin Williams through his characters sent any kid who watched these movies an important lesson. His characters, those surrogate parents, would love their children unconditionally and despite any odds: I will encourage you to follow your dreams. I will trek through the jungle or fly across the island to save you. I will disguise myself as a British woman just to be near you. I will help you win the princess’s heart. I will pretend to be straight so you can marry the princess. I will go through hell, literally, to find you and reunite our family.

tumblr_m105h7zU6X1r3ra3ro1_400

“Help is on the way, dear!”

This is why people are so touched by his passing. I think the more movies you’ve seen him in, the more heartwrenching this is. A man who brought such great joy to so many might have passed away in such a tragic way. His death is confirmed but what is suspected – not yet confirmed – is that it was a suicide. Please, if you are facing depression, don’t go through it alone. Seek help from your loved ones or professionally if necessary.

I know I’m not the only one watching Robin Williams movies this week or searching clips on YouTube. He has left us. But he has left behind so many moments of joy and laughter, and in those, we can take comfort. Thank you for everything, Mr. Williams.

You ain't never had a friend like me.

You ain’t never had a friend like me.

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13 Comments

  1. This is one well written article Nick. I like him most in Mrs. Doubtfire and Dead Poet’s Society. Not to forget Birdcage too. Thank you Nick for the memories of these movies. And Thank you Robin for all the lessons and laughter. Nanu nanu. -Ninang Ma

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like this article. I am a social worker who is going to be a therapist one day and I have seen a lot of folks who have depression but feel that they can handle it and don’t understand why they are not strong enough to do so. Depression is a REAL problem and needs to be dealt with in the proper way. I loved Robin in Patch Adams and Mork and Mindy along with other movies. He will definitely be missed.

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  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories on this. I, much like yourself, am unusually touched by his passing and my thoughts today are filled with the sadness of losing such a great talent and philanthropist, sprinkled with great memories of his wacky sense of humour, and amazing work on stage and screen. But I keep asking myself why? Why am I so much more affected by his passing, than I am by other celebrity passings? Then I see so many others feeling the same way. Thank you for shedding some light on this. I think that even though he was open about his battle with depression and bi polar disorder, and his struggle to live a clean and sober life, somehow it still comes as a shock to us, that a life can be extinguished so quickly. It’s actually terrifying.

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  4. I am not one to EVER reply to a social network…. But whomever wrote this article is pathetic. Let’s get this straight…. First of all…… He didn’t pass….. HE CHOSE to END it! Therefore, your childhood memories should not feel ended. If you are comparing your life through the lives of celebrities …. Your childhood should’ve ended years ago….. How about… Childhood memories come from the people you ACTUALLY KNOW and not those who could give two craps about what you are thinking while they are living spoiled lives and we are struggling to survive while their money is being wasted on drugs and prostitutes and gambling, CARS or a FISHING ROD you could never afford…. And you claim, “your childhood had ended.” I feel sorry for you.. Look at the attention this man is getting while you’re trying to feed your family or are tired from long hours and the people who ACTUALLY MAKE your childhood and keep you youthful EVERYDAY are the one that are IN your life everyday…. So, let your soul grow old and die because SOME person….. Like each and everyone of us whom suffer loses each day…. ACTUALLY made YOU…. And you make their childhoods last… How about that ?

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  5. There is an underlying current of sadness among many comedians… many have had painful childhoods. Dysfunctional family dynamics drive Their sense of humor. Quite a few were bullied and their amusing banter and come-backs were a defence mechanism avoid conflicts and altercations. An undercurrent of sadness is kept at bay by the court jester that takes center stage. I was struck with an uneasiness by the fact that even during a serious interview Robin Williams couldn’t give answers or respond to questions with a straight answer, always interjecting animated humor at every opportunity which seemed uncalled for. Many comedian’s have a “Petter Pan” complex not wanting to let go of the innocent child like state of mind to accept the more serious and sobering responsibilities of adulthood. Midlife crisis being a major hurdle to overcome. So in reality suicide as sad as it seems is not that far fetched.

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  6. yeah josephine you are a heartless person, you don’t have any empathy, don’t you get it? obviously even if you are a rich, successful person with a fantastic career you can still struggle emotionally and it can be a living hell. It just goes to show that money doesn’t buy happiness. I just hope he does rest in peace from whatever was tormenting him. And just because robin Williams is a staple of our generations childhood doesn’t mean we didn’t enjoy those moments with people around us perhaps they are the very reason he is so dear to so many of us.. ps You’re a cunt.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. I really am amazed at the way you deconstructed our collective feelings about his passing. I also feel this way. He showed his love for others through his day to day life and his acting and it really did came through on the screen. RIP Robin Williams, you will always be missed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post. It is awesome.

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  8. You nailed it. I don’t care for celebrity gossip but when I heard about RW, I felt the same way you did. As a 30 year old, married man, I feel connected to him in the strangest way, and I also attribute it to the fact that his death somehow robs me of whatever childhood innocence I had left in me. In other words, shit just got real.

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  9. Mr. Williams you are being missed my millions. I enjoyed watching you from when you were on Happy Days. You me laugh, you made me cry. And now like most of the rest of the world I am sad. It’s been a week ago today. I feel like I lost a friend, a good friend. I hope you have peace now. And to your family I send my prayers.

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