How We Mourn: Twitter’s Wake for Robin Williams

Robin Williams died earlier today in California, of depression and suicide. You can read about the details on CBC or any other news outlet.

He was 63.

I heard the news, as I hear about nearly everything these days, on Twitter.

At first, my feed was full of disbelief: Was this true? Was it another celebrity death hoax?

Please, could we make this one a hoax?

But as tweets from more and more media outlets appeared in my stream —CBC, CNN, ABC News—the truth became undeniable.

And so began the wake.

If you have Irish blood in your family, as I do, you know all too well the funny, painful, necessary sharing of stories that follows every loss.

Thanks to Twitter and other social media platforms, the deaths of celebrities like Robin Williams draw us into an infinitely long room full of mourners.

There were reporters I follow, like CBC’s Tom Harrington and Peter Mansbridge, tweeting their disbelief and loss, their verified 140-character messages interspersed among the musings of the colleagues and friends I listen to and talk with almost daily.

People cited their favorite Williams’ films (mine is Good Will Hunting), scenes (Aladdin’s dance numbers got a lot of mentions), and lines (I lost track of all the anguished tweets of, “Captain, my Captain!”).

Some recounted personal meetings with Williams. For those fortunate enough to have met him, he was by accounts both generous and kind.

More widely shared in my stream were tweets from The Bloggess, NPR alum Andy Carvin, Xeni at Boing Boing and actors like Chris Meloni and Anna Kendrick.

At the epicenter were tweets from people like Sarah Michelle Gellar, who worked on TV’s The Crazy Ones with Williams over the last year (she played his daughter) and wordlessly tweeted this moving collage:

Photo via @realsmg

But no matter how tenuous or firm our connection to Williams, we were all doing the same thing.

Collectively grieving, by degrees both deep and shallow.

There are people, and I’d count my husband among them, who are perplexed when I feel sorrow after a celebrity dies.

This isn’t a new thing.

Traditionally, we’ve granted successful actors, musicians, writers and other artists iconic power for their parts in delivering artistic experiences that may profoundly mark a period in our lives.

This happening is most powerful during childhood and adolescence, when our perceptions about what constitutes meaningful art are so fluid, when we haven’t internalized the cultural scripts for how a movie or book or song should unfold and when a well-delivered, immerse artistic experience can be downright revelatory.

I don’t know about you, but I long for that experience as an adult every time I see a film, watch a show or open a book.

So to me it’s normal to fixate on the people we associate with those intense experiences, to make them part of the fabric of our lives and to feel loss when they vanish.

Factor in social media, where celebrities’ pictures and words get mixed into the stream of those generated by our friends and family, and the connections can feel even tighter.

Small wonder we seek ways to come together and collectively acknowledge a death like Robin Williams’, particularly when it is unexpected and attributable to a struggle that affects so many of us personally.

Which brings me to mental illness.

In the midst of this outpouring, I was pleased so many seized the moment to speak candidly about mental illness, depression and suicide, and to request compassion, help and understanding for those who struggle with depression.

These are issues too often swept beneath the rug when we’re faced with the tyranny of the immediate.

It’s so easy to dismiss depression, to mask it as something less than the fierce and dangerous thing it is, a thing that attacks without any regard for the background or achievements (especially those) of its victims.

And when we grieve for Robin Williams, we don’t just do it for him and the gift of his lost genius — we grieve our awareness of the fragility of human life and the silent, painful wars so many people around us are fighting every day.

Many people on Twitter posted links or numbers for suicide helplines.

In such ways we make sense of the senseless.

I put down my smartphone to help my husband put our children to bed.

“What’s wrong?” he whispered to me over their innocent heads.

I thought of the plethora of messages I’d just read over the last 30 minutes, from people in all walks of life in cities both near and far from ours.

“Robin Williams died.”

How complex social media makes that simple truth.