There was an uneasy silence in the office when news of Robin Williams’ death broke. It was like everyone took a deep breath, slouched in their chairs, and put their heads in their hands, all at same time.
Within minutes, social media became a space of confusion and publicly displayed grief. Almost a week later, some disbelief and much grief remains. But why? Why are we affected by the death of someone we don’t know, and is it normal? Yes, it is normal. And there are no rules when it comes to grieving. Each person responds in their own way, and that’s okay. There are, however, things we can do to cope with any overwhelming emotions we’re feeling.
The death of Robin Williams has affected us because we thought we knew him. We thought he was a top bloke. He was personable and funny on screen and off. The interviews he gave were funny yet thought provoking. He would effortlessly weave from moments of hilarity through some profound and deep thought and then, before we knew it, we were belly laughing again thanks to his unpredictable, energetic, uplifting wit. We not only liked the characters he played, we liked Robin Williams. We had an emotional attachment to him because he made us feel good and inspired. We mourn for him because we liked and respected him, he challenged us, and, via our television and cinema screens, we thought we knew him.
But there’s also a darker side to the public outpouring of grief that we are seeing after Robin Williams’ suicide. For people who suffer depression, or know someone who does, Robin William’s death may make their own battle more confronting: “If Robin Williams, a family man who was successful, loved, clever, and hilarious can’t cope in this world, what chance do I have?”
However, as one depression sufferer told me, the public conversation that Robin Williams’ death has inspired has been very positive. He’s noted that the awareness and discussion of depression, anxiety and mental health has ‘sky rocketed’. Slowly but surely, the once taboo subject is encroaching into the mainstream psyche. There’s still a long way to go, but the wider discussion has got to start somewhere.
And as we continue to mourn the comedic genius of Robin Williams, the world is also saying goodbye to another public figure. Dead at 89 years of age, Lauren Bacall’s recent years weren’t as well-documented as Robin Williams’, but she was still working. She may not have had a Twitter or an Instagram account like Robin Williams did, but the actress from Hollywood’s golden age had still morphed into a pop culture figure. One of her last appearances, earlier this year, was lending her voice to an episode of ‘Family Guy’.
The public’s connection to the screen and style icon was very different to that of Robin Williams’, yet the sadness of her passing was no less apparent. We can thank social media for that.
While social media has a well-documented dark side, its upside is that it does allow people to grieve together, and to find a commonality in the way they are feeling. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement says listening and sharing experiences can normalise the grief journey. Not feeling alone is important.
As the funerals for these two screen legends edge closer, we can expect to experience another wave of sad and possibly confronting media coverage. There are some pretty straight-forward things we can do make sure our coping strategies are ready:
1 Get a good night’s sleep. We all get a bit cranky when we’re tired. When we don’t get enough sleep, it affects how we feel and how we manage our emotions. It can also impair our judgement and affect decision making
2 Exercise. The influence of physical activity on mental well-being is now clear. Hundreds of studies have found exercise can enhance self-esteem, improve moods, reduce anxiety, and improve resilience to stress. A brisk walk or cycle can also tire us out, encouraging a better night’s sleep.
3 Eat well. The body of evidence linking diet and mental well-being has grown rapidly in recent years. We feel better when we eat a balanced diet incorporating things like cereals, vegetables and fruits, lean meat, dairy, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and water.
While we mourn the loss of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, and acknowledge the hardship their families are facing, we would not be human if their deaths didn’t make us contemplate our own mortality. If you’re finding this time confronting or difficult, there are wonderful people you can talk to at Lifeline by calling 13 11 14.
In the wise words of one of Hollywood’s most legendary leading ladies, Lauren Bacall, “Here is a test to find out whether your mission in life is complete. If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Lisa Herbert is an ABC journalist whose interest in society’s perception of death and dying led to her penning ‘The Bottom Drawer Book: The After Death Action Plan‘.
The humourous and colourfully illustrated book is for anyone who wishes to influence their own farewell. As well as providing lots of information, it provides space to document everything, from where your important documents are, through organ donation, down to what music you’d like played, the type of coffin you’d like, and what you want to be wearing for your own funeral. Death touches us all, so it’s a clever idea to collate our preferences and answer the difficult questions, before they’re asked, for those we leave behind. Buy the book here
More from Lisa Herbert:
Dying To Know: 22 Things You Didn’t know About Death & Funerals