Strange Grief: A Goodbye to Robin Williams

Do you know why I think Mrs. Doubtfire was so successful? I think Mrs. Doubtfire was so successful because it told us something that we all really, really needed to hear, but couldn't quite understand that we needed to hear. That movie says, "Hey. Your dad? That quasi-stranger who is supposed to be a major part of your life but never really feels all there? He's there, no matter what's happened with him. He loves you very, very much."

The Internet is ablaze today with personal anecdotes and bare lamentation related to Robin Williams' heart-wrenching exit from the stage. There's no need for me to add to the pile, and no shortage of tributes that are most touching - videos of thematically appropriate moments from his performances. But I too am hit harder than I would have anticipated - if anyone could have anticipated this - and I too do not know how to mourn a stranger. It hurts. I could let it sit there and ache away, or I can write.

When these moments occur, these more-personal or sudden celebrity deaths, without fail I think back to age 12, and putting my trombone away in the band room in junior high. I think about this because that's where I was one early morning when my best friend told me that Jim Henson had died. That's the first time I felt that kind of news. That's my JFK, as it were, and it stands as one of my most profound experiences of this strange grief. Kurt Cobain's suicide didn't land for me as hard as Henson's death from illness, and prior to yesterday the only comparable experience I've had is grief for the thousands on September 11th.

Robin Williams' death makes me feel 12 again, and in shock. I read he died (on Twitter, of course) as we were putting our daughter to bed, then learned from my wife when I emerged from the nursery that it was suspected to be a suicide. It was a one-two punch, and I'm still reeling from it this morning.

We, the audience, don't really know Robin Williams. That distinction belongs to his family and friends, if anyone. It helps us to think that we know him because it gives us some sense of ownership over his work, which can be more easily transferred to a possession of our own grief at his passing. But we didn't know him. We often feel that we didn't truly know family members who have died, people to whom we were close as no other can be, so we can't claim to have known Robin.

So what do we make of our grief? Whom are we grieving? His characters? Mork, or Sean Maguire? A cocaine-addicted twenty-something comedian who is flat-out funnier than anyone going, or a brave yet unpretentious middle-aged actor who is huge, whether he hits or misses on a given project? Our friend? His comedy? A stranger?

It seems we make tributes of our grief, and we make anecdotes, and we find a little extra interpersonal connection in what's common between our sorrows for a little while. We have a little wake of sorts, between email and paychecks, and over meals and coffee. Some use the opportunity to promote awareness of addiction and depression struggles. Some try to get others to laugh, still others to cry. It's comforting to me that in a sense Robin Williams continues to do good, that his work lives on so vividly both in our memories and the media.

Then there's also the anger. At him, for leaving, for what's got to be one of the most selfish acts known to humanity. At us, and me, for taking him for granted while he was here. At life, God, whatever, for making this so difficult for some that they can only see one road through. The anger's always a part of it. The anger's got nothing new to say. Valid feeling, but useful only to a certain point. Past that point, it's just wearing you down so you're exhausted enough to remember, and grieve.

Two memories of my own:

Mork & Mindy. Robin Williams and John Ritter were, for my prepubescent money, the greatest comedians in the universe, and Mork & Mindy was how I knew the former. I copied him. I wanted his suspenders. I just got it, man. There was this living id up there, for all the world acting like my age, with the glorious excuse of being an alien from another planet. I even appreciated (WAY too young) that he was living with a foxy lady, and there was something there that I wanted, too. (Paul F. Tompkins summed it up far better than I am.)

Looking back, I realize that I was recording not only his wild permissiveness as affirmation of how I felt as a young boy, but saving valuable lessons for who I would aspire to be as a performer. He was so damn precise. Do you remember how precise he was? Right on top of every beat, despite the anarchic, Marx-Brothers-esque stream of absurdity, he hit all the stops. He listened, never missing an opportunity. He had incredible stillness, brief as it might be, just in the right place. His choices, his movement, are beyond specific - acute. They were, he was, genius.

Good Will Hunting. Home from college, I think during a summer, I took myself to the movies. I never go to movies quite as blindly as I did at that age. Studying theatre occupied me so totally that I was never watching TV or seeing trailers, or news. I've no idea what made me decide to see Good Will Hunting, much less by myself at a daytime matinee (well: the price) but I still remember how it felt. Unexpectedly hilarious guilty pleasure for the first half, gut-punching drama for the second. It all builds up to one moment for me, arguably the emotional climax of the film.

"It's not your fault. Son, it's not your fault."

I came undone. Completely. By myself in a darkened movie theater, I wept. I could easily right now, in thinking of it.

I've gone back several times to that scene. One of the first times back, I recognized that there's an extremely influential cut in the editing. Right before Matt Damon's character cracks into tears, fighting back against his own vulnerability, there is a clear cut in the scene. Right before the big catharsis, an edit point. It spoiled the experience for me for a little while, realizing that I was being manipulated, seeing behind the curtain.

But in the years since, time spent in rooms working out a scene from some play, struggling as I grew older to reclaim the same sense of belief that was at my fingertips fresh out of college, I've come around to a different view. Yes, they cut that scene together. In fact, it's not a matter of one scene that they shortened. Damon and Williams probably went through the scene many, many times. They probably had terrible takes. What we see isn't even a final product of theirs, but a conglomeration pieced together by others in an editing bay weeks and weeks after the fact.

That scene is even more moving to me, now. Because what that means is that at one time, two actors went through a process together. What that means is that Robin Williams stayed in a room for hours, and hours, and said that line, over and over and over again, and meant it. He meant it so much, he made someone else stuck in that hours-long room with him believe it. He meant it.

We, the audience, were given a gift. There was truth in Robin Williams' work. Just bare-faced truth. It was given so easily, flowed so abundantly that of course we took it for granted, and even criticized it in some contexts. It seemed too easy, too earnest, was at times too difficult to accept. This is what we knew of a real person, and he gave it to us so incredibly freely. I am grateful, and I will miss Robin Williams.