For When You Feel Like a Spectator to Grief: A Reflection on the Death of Robin Williams

In the quiet of this morning, before the sun comes up behind the trees in our yard, I acknowledge how very little I know. Because the pain in the world is sometimes too much to bear and our backs can bend heavy beneath it, rounding over and caving in like a tired question mark.

For When You Feel Like a Spectator to Grief  - Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams

Some losses hit you harder than others and I don’t know exactly why that is. It can be difficult to know how to process the death of someone you only know from the movies or because they’re in the public eye.

I still remember the sadness in late August of 1997 when we learned the news of Princess Diana’s car accident. As a girl, I looked up to her because she was a beautiful princess living in a fairy tale. But her life told a different kind of story than the ones I made up for her in my head. When she died, that story revealed itself even more clearly to the world whether she wished it so or not.

A few years later we were on vacation in Hilton Head when we heard about John Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash. Later that night, we went out to dinner near the harbor, the restaurant hushed in respectful shock, whispering behind the back of one of the waitresses who looked exactly like Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy.

But the first time I stood on the peripheral of public grief was walking home from the bus stop after school and my sister told me that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded that day. I was eight and the first thing I remember thinking was how that couldn’t be true because Christa McAuliffe was on that shuttle and she was just an ordinary teacher.

John and I went to see Patch Adams on our first real date, that time he tried to hold my hand and I wouldn’t let him because he hadn’t told me with words yet how he felt about me. So we had a long talk after the movie was over in the parking lot of the theater. Do you like me? Is this a thing between us? All with nervous chewing of twizzlers and secret dreaming of the rest of our lives.

Last night, when the news broke about the death of Robin Williams, we were watching Jumanji on our sofa with our three kids, our dog, and a borrowed kitten. I’d never seen the movie but I knew he was in it. Well, it must be good then. Of course it must.

When we turned the movie off, I checked my phone and saw the news and there was that familiar ache again, the sadness and disorientation that comes when you hear tragic, shocking news. As someone who tends to navigate the world through experience, intuition, and deep feeling, I always struggle to know how to process the loss of someone I don’t know personally.

In some ways I fear I don’t have the right to grieve a loss that doesn’t seem to belong to me, like I should keep a respectful distance from the real grief of others. But I’m not sure that’s right and I think to deny the effect someone has on your life, however small, is to lose a little bit of being human.

Robin Williams wasn’t part of my life, but his art colored the backdrop.

When someone shares their art with the world, they share a bit of themselves. And when they die, especially when their death reveals a pain that runs deep and wide and dark, you see their art differently. The lens shifts and we get a glimpse of the person beneath the actor, of the soul within the person.

And so those of us who only knew him from the roles he played will pray for those who knew him best. And we’ll consider all the sadness around the world and within our own hearts, remembering Christ who came down to heal all the brokenness, both within us and around us.

By faith, we trust he is building his kingdom even while we wait for the day when we can see with our eyes how he is making all things right again.

“As you huddle around the torn silence, each by this lonely deed exiled to a solitary confinement of soul, may some small glow from what has been lost return like the kindness of candlelight.”

-John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us



  1. says

    Beautiful Emily. Each of those people you mentioned, who died suddenly and tragically, their deaths still haunt me. And when people we watch from the sidelines are no longer, I often look for the message God has in it for us as bystanders. Robin Williams made an impression on the world for laughter, yet he left us gaping in sadness.

  2. says

    Beautiful Emily. It’s hard to swallow that someone who inspired and touched so many struggled with his own trials. This makes me want to embrace all of our humanness, imperfections and struggles. Those are part of who we are and our life story and we can’t wish them away. Thank you for sharing.

  3. says

    “In some ways I fear I don’t have the right to grieve a loss that doesn’t seem to belong to me, like I should keep a respectful distance from the real grief of others. But I’m not sure that’s right and I think to deny the effect someone has on your life, however small, is to lose a little bit of being human.”

    Yes, that’s it exactly. Such beautiful words to share. Thank you.
    Sarah M

    • Cindy says

      I think we do have the right to grieve. Robin Williams gave of himself and in doing that he did become part of us. My emotions still respond to each of the roles that he played. He (and his acting) will always be a part of our lives.

  4. says

    beautifully written! I had no idea how the death of Robin would effect me so profoundly. I had a sick feeling when I heard the news, as if he had been a part of my family. So sad his comedic personality covered up so much grief.

  5. Veronica says

    Beautifully said, Emily. Who knew that behind the all the laughter, there was so much pain? He was a comedic genius and his art will be sorely missed.

  6. says

    Emily I so appreciate your gracious, wise words. You see there is pain, you acknowledge it which gives the pain a place to be; not to be denied, pushed down or ‘gotten over’. To be. As the daughter of a suicide victim I know well the touch of the double grief: loss of your loved one and the grief that accompanies the heaviness of ‘what if’ and ‘if only’.
    You said it well “I think to deny the effect someone has on your life, however small, is to lose a little bit of being human.” We err on the side of staying away from those who grieve a suicide; if you know someone whose life has been impacted by suicide, come alongside them. Unfortunately, those who were in my life as walking companions at the time walked away rather than toward me, which made my grief all the more lonely.
    But God in His infinite mercy drew closer still. It was a season of dark nights of my soul. But God was in it with me.
    Praying for eyes to see His mercies for those who may not yet know His Presence.

  7. says

    Emily, your words are deeply heart-felt, brave, and moving. Tears drip as I read wisdom. Having lost my father to a sudden stroke last year, I know grief well. And some of the most beautiful moments have been when others have entered the story and felt their personal grief at missing my dad in a unique, special way. It’s a gift to be impacted by someone’s life, and an even greater gift to share it with those still here. Thank you for sharing. Many will find comfort in this post. Hugs from Huntington Beach.

    Upcycled Jane’s last blog post:

  8. pamela says

    Such beautiful words Emily and so full of truth. It’s a weird feeling to want to cry hearing about the death of someone you didn’t really know. Like you, I have had those same feelings many times when people I followed, admired, grew up watching, have been taken from this life. I think in this instance it is especially sad to know the pain this brilliant man must have been suffering.

    Thank you again for capturing so eloquently what so man of us feel.
    And may Robin Williams rest in peace now…truly rest in peace.

  9. Lara says

    It’s uncanny that I would read a random quote by Robin Williams in a Home magazine on the day he died. I have not seen Jumanji, but Dead Poet’s Society was one of my favourites as a teen. His acting/art was beautiful and it’s so sad.

  10. says

    You really put into words what I’ve been feeling today! On the radio they were playing a bunch of songs in tribute to Robin, and I just bawled my eyes out. I grew up watching Mrs. Doubtfire and Hook with my family, and countless other movies he was in. My brother and I were obsessed with the Genie from Aladdin, and grew up quoting his lines and singing “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me!” For some reason, losses like that hit home even when you haven’t met them in person. His art and comedy had an impact on my life. I’ve always deeply valued a good laugh, and he was one of the few actors that made me laugh every time. The thought that hit me the hardest was that even though he spent a lot of time making people laugh, he was always a tortured soul.

  11. says

    Yes, so beautifully put, Emily. I, too, felt this unexplainable sadness when I heard the news and it is so tragic that one who made so many of us laugh uncontrollably on the outside apparently was very sad down deep on the inside. Like you said in your post may this move us all to pray for those closest to him as they grieve the loss of a son, husband, father, and friend.

  12. Carol B. says

    Thank you. I am having a lot of trouble processing RW’s death, and as usual you have eloquently put into words exactly what I was thinking. Somehow having you define it validates my feelings, and for that I am appreciative.

  13. Alexandra says

    “Robin Williams wasn’t part of my life, but his art colored the backdrop.”

    That is simply a perfect description of the feelings that I couldn’t describe myself. Thank you.

  14. says

    Thank you for bringing your gifts to this sadness. You have spoken feelings that surely are nation wide as we honor this extraordinary artist.

  15. says

    Exactly! It’s just weird being so sad over someone you don’t actually know. Very similar to the feelings I have for authors and bloggers 😉 that I don’t know…knowing them by their art, but not in person. Good stuff to chew on.

  16. says

    You say so well what I’ve thought so often, remembering the same tragedies you mention. It is a strange thing, these feelings for people we never met, but feel like we know so well. And it’s a beautiful thing really…that we can love people through their art that they share with us all. I love that thought. It’s so true. Thank you for these words…they are comforting and reflective. xoxo

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