Update: Much has changed since Robin Williams’ death in 2014. New information has been released regarding the circumstances of his reported suicide. There have also been changes in the family situation Jay describes in the post from August 13, 2014. For a happier, more positive continuation of this story, read Jay’s most recent post on this subject in his blog The Family Side.
Yesterday while driving to Vermont to bring my fifteen-year-old-daughter home from camp, I could not help but hear the many news reports and remembrances of Robin Williams, including a 2006 interview on public radio where he described his struggles with depression not as a clinical condition, but as an ordinary emotion that all people feel at times. “Sometimes I feel sad,” was how he put it to Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air.
It is hard to understand how a man who seemed to have his own mental health in such balanced perspective, could end up taking his own life eight years later. Robin William’s death by suicide on Monday has seized the attention of an entire nation in part because he seemed to be of such healthy mind. The madcap portrayals of his more zany comic characters may have led us to suspect a touch of mania and we may have heard reports of his struggles with alcohol and other substances. We can also sense the real-life pain beneath his portrayals of such characters as John Keating in The Dead Poets Society and Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. We would expect the man who played those characters to admit that “Sometimes I feel sad.” But we would never expect him to take his life.
The untimely death of a celebrity always seems to focus the public attention: more so in the case of Robin Williams, precisely because of who he was in public. We know the public persona as presented in his movie, TV and radio appearances and believe we know the person. This makes it all the more shocking when that person does something so at odds with the public persona. John Keating and Sean Maguire were the ones urging us to live, despite the pain that life can bring. So losing Robin Williams is a little bit like losing them and the hopeful life-affirming message they delivered. This is partly why a nation grieves this week.
As I listened to the radio, I also felt a private grief. My destination was a therapeutic camp for children and adolescents challenged by mental health conditions, and I was driving to pick up my daughter five days early because her own struggles with depression and anxiety had made it impossible for her to stay there.
During the four-hour drive from Connecticut, I was grieving not just for Robin Williams, but also for my daughter and my own lost hope that she may have found a temporary relief from her struggles of mental health in a summer camp made for kids like her. Running through my mind were simultaneous images of Robin in The Fisher King and Peter Pan alongside pictures posted on the camp’s website of my daughter poised in meditation class or her smiling face with friends as she sailed along a zip line. But Peter Pan and Sean Maguire could not save the man who portrayed them any more than zip lines and meditation could stop my daughter’s pain. Laughter and friends are only temporary remedies… Such is the nature of depression.
In some ways, I have been my daughter’s Sean Maguire, her Peter Pan and Patch Adams all in one. Over the years I have developed a repertoire of character voices with elaborate back stories and exaggerated foibles to help jolly her out of her depression and get her through her anxious nights. I even have an emergency clown nose which I break out when things get really rough. The amazing thing is it really works! But only for a while.
Depression and anxiety may be conditions which my daughter lives with all her life. Though I may always cling to the hope that someday “she’ll get over it,” I realize there are depths of depression that no comedian can lift you out of. Not even Robin Williams. If it were possible to do that, Robin the man would still be alive.
Robin Williams is gone. But his characters live on in all of us to inspire hope – maybe even more so now that we have a glimpse into the inner pain, along with the joy, that went into their creation. And I’m not giving up the emergency clown nose, even though I know that it will never be enough to fully heal my daughter.
Thank you Robin Williams for all the joy you brought us.
You can listen to Robing Williams talk about his depression, life and other topics in this NPR interview: Robin Williams on Fresh Air
Recommended for You
For more articles on mental health like this one, subscribe to our e-newsletter.
- Silver Hill Hospital: My Family’s 35-Year History with a National Leader in Quality Mental Health Care - February 7, 2023
- Connecticut Mother Who Lost a Son to Overdose Shares Her Story and Hosts Wilton Fundraiser to Benefit Laurel House - November 9, 2022
- Laurel House Offers $10,000 Racial Equity Scholarship for a Black or Hispanic Student Pursuing a Master’s of Social Work Degree - June 8, 2022
29 thoughts on “A Father’s Grief at the Loss of an Iconic Actor: In Memory of Robin Williams’ Gift to All of Us”
What a beautifully written commentary, so obviously from the heart. Your daughter is blessed to have a father who loves her so dearly; a father soulfully committed to the daily battle depression can become. I wish you, Jay, as well as all parents struggling with this challenge continued strength. Here is to the hope that one day in the future, depression will be something that “used to be” and we won’t need to rely and “funny red noses” and parents won’t have to fall asleep at night wondering and worrying. But, until that time, God Bless all the parents, who reach out for answers. Here’s to their strength and love. Here’s to one day.
Thank you, Eileen.
It really takes a team; I could not do this without my wife, Tina. I should add that my daughter seems to be in a better place today.
One day at a time…
Having been on this road as a parent, for several years, trying to find answers & longing to see a carefree spirit of hope & laughter in your child…yes, thank you for expressing this. I would not have made it through these past two years without a support group & the guidance of an amazing woman who had walked the road ahead of me and is now reaching back to pull others along. Navigating school, social life, family life, has become so much better, although I know there will be more challenges ahead, my heart & mind are more hopeful about the future with that sense of “cautious optimism” (with Gods help), and I pray that I will Never Ever Give Up on my child;, and when it’s my turn to reach back and help another, that I could do it with love & cpassion. My earnest hope is that creative, available resources will increase for the families & children who need them. (Forgive my stream of consciousness writing!)
Hi, Marie… Thank you for your “stream of consciousness” comment. It is just the kind of dialogue we want to engage in on the blog. I hear and empathize with everything you write.
You have described the exact reason for this website’s existence: We want to help parents like you connect with other amazing parents who have “walked the road” ahead of them, and identify the “creative, available resources” that exist for families and their loved ones in this situation.
Thank you for your kind comments and for posting a comment on the site. Best wishes to you and your child, and may you Never Ever Give Up!
I appreciate your openness in talking about your daughter. I have a close relationship with someone who also suffers from clinical depression. I have seen her in the lowest depths of despair that anyone can imagine. Thankfully much time has lapsed since the last episode. But I know it is within the realm of possibility that there could be a reoccurence . Your dedication and support for your daughter is truly amazing and as one commenter put , she is fortunate to have a caring dad like you. Some day a researcher will affect a permanent cure and there will be less need for red noses. .
Thanks for sharing, Jay and everyone else. It’s always my hope when we endure a public tragedy like this one, that at least one by-product will be a chip in the shame, stigma and discrimination that keeps people suffering from mental illness “in the closet.” Jay has shed some light on the effects of mental illness not just on the person with the diagnosis, but all the people who love them. It’s courageous, and it’s desperately needed. People need to understand that this is not one person’s, or one family’s problem to deal with in the dark.
Persons suffering from depression have shared with me not only the pain they feel from the illness itself, but also the frustration they feel knowing that people who do not suffer from depression can’t fathom just how abandoned and hopeless everything seems.
Thank you for your comment Campbell… The frustration you refer to can lead to further isolation for the person who’s depressed.
The “why don’t you get out and stop focusing on your problems” attitude of many people can do as much harm as the illness itself. It’s my belief that most people really want to help, but don’t know how. After all, it is deeply frustrating, painful, and disheartening to watch a loved one sink into depression and feel that you are powerless to do anything about it.
Perhaps that shared frustration is the point at which empathy can begin. Understanding also helps. William Styron’s memoir on depression, Darkness Visible, is a good starting point for anyone seeking to understand just how bad depression can feel.
What a beautifully written piece, Jay. Through Robin Williams’ story and the amazing work Laurel House and places like it do, I am hopeful that one day those who suffer will not have to do so alone and that their pain will lessen with the right treatment and care. Be kind to yourself, all.
Jay, I feel for you and empathize with you. It is a sad truth that so many of us struggle with the depression of someone close to us. We live in constant fear and also fervent hope that one day there will better days and an easy cure.
Thank for sharing your thoughts Jay. I can sympathize with your plight with your daughter. As you already know, we have had a similar journey with our son. I’d like to share something with you that I have learned along the way…… Do not ever give up hope. Robin Williams is gone but perhaps his suicide will help to spread awareness and fight stigma and emphasize the importance of getting help. We are all in this journey together and share the burden of taking care of our ill family member. Remember to take some time to take care of yourself. We can easily lose ourselves in the day to day caretaking duties and issues. Enjoy the little victories and happy times along the way. Those are the important moments in life. And never ever ….. Stop hoping.
Janice, Chitra and Lorraine, Thank you for your kind comments. I agree… Never give up hope!
Jay, this was something else! I'm very glad to hear that you're not giving up the emergency clown nose. 🙂
I wrote to you a couple of days ago on that VERY touching piece that you wrote, regarding the Divine Robin Williams & your daughter. I was so touched by it. As a bi polar man who suffers deep depression, I was even more touched.
You wrote so lovingly about your daughter. (If she doesn’t know how much you love her & care for her, she will when she’s older.)
I read some of the comments above, and one line stuck out: “Be kind to yourself.” Like any father, you will put some
of this on yourself. I sense that you have a equally devoted wife — and the strength that you give each other — must
be cherished. You’re going though this together. (I feel so sorry for single parents who deal with this alone.)
Keep up the cheer & smiles – and keep writing — for you are touching everyone who you reach…
Thank you for your comments, Martin.
Your reminder to “Be kind to yourself” is good advice for all of us, whether we are struggling with our own challenges of mental health or those of a loved one.
Yes, it helps a great deal to have a supportive partner, whether that person is a spouse, extended family member, or just a good friend. Sometimes the burden of mental illness is too hard to bear alone. Having a vital support system is just as important as finding the right therapist and medications.
if anyone can help me with possible resources to help my severely depressed 20 year old son, who has struggled with extreme sad and depressed episodes for years now – I would be most grateful. As fellow sufferer I am at the end of energy and hope and need help for us. We live in Norman OK, near the University of Oklahoma / where I taught for years until the need for an organ transplant rendered me too weak to continue for a time – shortly after the disability developed, instructor positions were eliminated and my son works at a restaurant instead of studying …. please help if you know of any aid available in the Oklahoma City area most grateful, Marion
You are not alone in your concerns. It’s hard for any parent to watch a young son or daughter struggle with depression.
I’m sure there are some good resources for help in the Oklahoma City area, but I don’t have any names for you, as that’s pretty far outside of the RtoR orbit (we cover Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts).
If you’re looking for service providers in your area, or just an idea of what help might be available, the 2-1-1 Oklahoma helpline is a good place to start. Just dial 211 from anywhere in Oklahoma (most states have a 211 number you can call 24/7 for help identifying services).
What about other visitors to the site.. Is there anyone out there with knowledge or experience of mental health services in Oklahoma City area, or words of encouragement/support for Marion?
Best wishes and be sure to take care of yourself, too…
I can’t believe you all are patting yourself on the back because you all suffer from the dilemma of having a child who has been diagnosed with having a mental illness. Do you know that genetics is only half of the “cause” of mental illness? The other part is environmental circumstances that trigger symptoms of mental illness. Therefore, your reactions to their diagnoses may actually be making things worse. People diagnosed with a mental illness don’t need pity. They need support.
In the case of depression, the individual does not simply “feel sad.” People considering or having survived an attempted suicide will tell you that they feel more than “sad;” they have become so despondent in their lives that the only solution they can see is to commit suicide. Your diagnosis of Robin Williams and your comparison of his suicide to the pain that your child feels is shameful. No one will ever know know what he was feeling or thinking about when he died. And you will not know how your children suffer/feel and think if you neglect to ask them.
How do I know this? I’ve lived with the diagnosis of Bipolar disorder for 26 years, and suffered from it for 45 years. I tried to commit suicide because I didn’t want to have a mental illness and I saw no other logical conclusion for the rest of my life outside of commiting suicide.
Have you considered that Robin Williams may have committed suicide because he was despondent with his life at the time? And that if the circumstances were different that he might not have considered suicide? You can’t diagnose an actor based on the characters he or she chooses to play.
Please remember that you can be your child’s advocate instead of parents lamenting about their children’s mental health. To do so is a waste of time.
I read your article just after watching one of Robin Williams’ s last films. His death was a hard one to bare. I grew up watching many movies and knowing so much about a lot of actors. That was and still is my vice when my depression gets so bad. I have lived with depression, ptsd, and self harming since I can remember. I have children now that suffer the same fate I was given. I have always been on my own with this my whole life due to parents not understanding and refusing to understand my condition. My girls don’t get the care they need because I don’t know how to help them. The darkest years of my life was in the 10 year span that I had my kids. So them growing up with me has not been easy for them. It’s been hard for me to see them hurt so much and there is nothing I feel I can do to help them. How do you help someone when you don’t even know how to help yourself? Mr. Williams was a a huge part of my life. Knowing he is gone has left this world a little less warm and happy. His career was one year longer then my whole life up till he died. He will live forever on screen, in my mind, and in my heart.
Robin Williams was one of those special performers who could make us feel the joy of life even through the clouds of depression. It’s sad that he is gone, but at least his movies and the many wonderful characters he created remain with us.
As to your question, “How do you help someone when you don’t even know how to help yourself?” – it sometimes helps to get outside oneself a bit for a different perspective. If you love old movies, “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a great example of that theme.
For more direct assistance, you can also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to speak with a Resource Specialist about some options for help in your area.
And to “A different opinion” above…
Sorry to take so long getting back to you, but yes I have considered the questions you ask about the circumstances of Robin William’s death.
I don’t believe that any of us are trying to self-congratulate. Some of us, probably, are struggling with the same questions as you and don’t have the answers.
This website exists in part to prevent tragedies like the one that struck Robin William’s family. We are not a crisis line, but our Resource Specialists are available to help people connect with mental health resources and support. For more information on how to contact a Resource Specialist, click here.
I do believe in “ONE DAY AT A TIME” it’s been since Jan.4th 1989 my sister passed from suicide. Terrible thing she was just 18 and I was 16 never forget that Wednesday. Robin Williams was such a beautiful soul and spirit as was my sister. Very well talented and educated ppl my Sis was top of her class 3.8 GPA all honors academics a scholarship. To me the glass is half-full optimistic point of you. The great Lord or God to me calls the ones he needs most back to serve as his Angels and Jay your daughter is singing there with them yrs we get sad yes I cry for Robin your daughter Jay and ppl that struggle with depression. But then I think if they were here they would want us to celebrate there lives the inconsistencies the funny like walking into screen doors or Lil stuff like that the simple things the most heartfelt love I believe those strong loving memories keep them in our hearts in minds till our souls and spirit meet again in the hereafter. Thks for reading may God bless all who read and may you live, love and laugh a lot in life and enjoy we get one turn to make it count!
Thank you for your kind words and prayers.
My daughter is still with us, in case that wasn’t clear. Like many other parents, I grieve for a child’s illness, even as I feel blessed to have her.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about your own loss and your blessings for us all.
It seems to me that many of the most creative people who bring to us the deeper perception of life, the richer view of our human experience are often also the people who struggle with depression. Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway to name a few. Could it be those that suffer depression are suffering because they are reaching out on a far deeper emotional level than most of their fellow men can connect on?
There is scientific evidence that suggests a link between mental illness and creativity – particularly for mood disorders, such as bipolar and depression. You raise a very interesting question.
The irony is that many successful artists who have written about their struggles with depression and other mental health disorders claim that it does more to interfere with their creativity than to fuel it.
Lots of people have visited this page today on the 64th Anniversary of Robin’s birth.
What’s your favorite Robin Williams’ movie? Be sure to vote for your favorite in our poll above, or leave a comment here.
Hi with out doubt this post was outstanding, I had to leave a post, I simply adore the intuitive way this blog is written , just to make you aware I have book marked this page.
please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that Robin Williams was right at the end of his life diagnosed incorrectly with Parkinson’s when an autopsy showed he actually had the beginnings of Lewy Body Dementia: kinda a cross between Patkinsons and Alzheimer’s. there are hallucinations, paranoia,muscle control n speech loss problems that progress. While he probably did have depression and perhaps mania sometimes, I think this disease really is what he last suffered from. God bless all n their families who deal with it everyday. My Dad just got the diagnosis.
I raised three kids alone, child support was lean but I did it. It sickens me what this country is doing to the men. Robin couldn’t make enough money to keep up with the courts alimony rulings. Doesn’t make sense to me at all