Why the death of Robin Williams triggers an unquestioned outpouring of grief

Opinion: Reaction to the death of Michael Jackson and Princess Diana felt like nothing so much as the incantations of a religious cult at the creation of a martyr

‘Millions of strangers found themselves “devastated” and “bereft” at the news of Robin Williams’s death’. Above, a woman looks at an impromptu memorial to Robin Williams outside the  house used in Mork and Mindy in Boulder, Colorado. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters

‘Millions of strangers found themselves “devastated” and “bereft” at the news of Robin Williams’s death’. Above, a woman looks at an impromptu memorial to Robin Williams outside the house used in Mork and Mindy in Boulder, Colorado. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters

Sun, Aug 17, 2014, 12:01

The death of Robin Williams was a sad event. The actor, who took his own life following a long battle with depression, leaves behind three children and a distraught wife. Williams was a significant figure in the entertainment business and, like most newspapers, The Irish Times published tributes and obituaries. This is as it should be.

I was sorry to hear the news, but I did not cry or experience anything like proper grief. After all, I am not related to Robin Williams. I have never met Robin Williams. I know nobody directly affected by his loss.

That all seems sane enough. Out there in the wider world, however, millions of strangers found themselves “devastated” and “bereft” at the news. A random sampling of Twitter drags up a surprising number of users who “can’t stop crying”.

Emotional incontinence

The wonder is that, rather than triggering any great debate about an imbalance in priorities, this continuing phenomenon engenders little comment. We’ve become used to the emotional incontinence. It happened when Michael Jackson died. It happened when Heath Ledger passed. It happened most conspicuously when Princess Diana met her violent end.

Such gushing had happened in the past. There were reports of women flinging themselves from windows when actor Rudolph Valentino croaked in 1926. But the princess of Wales’s death marked the point at which recreational grieving reached epidemic proportions.

A nation that had once prided itself on a phlegmatic approach to emotional matters allowed large parts of the capital to be engulfed in oceans of petrol-station bouquets and cheap cuddly toys. Oddly, rather than being dedicated to the bereaved relatives, as was traditionally the pattern, the lilies and teddy bears were inscribed to the unaware deceased.

Imagined suffering

Queen Elizabeth found herself being lectured by the tabloids on the right way to respond to a death in her own family. Again and again, otherwise sane civilians appeared on television to explain the depths of their largely imagined suffering.

There has, in the UK, been some foot shuffling about those events over the succeeding years. More than a few supposed mourners now feel a little embarrassed about the undignified sobbing and unacceptable tolerance of Elton John numbers.

But the advent of social media only increased the metaphorical rending of garments. Everybody wants to be seen to care. Expressing implausible grief is a way of communicating your great sensitivity.

What on earth is going on? The manufactured sorrow at the death of figures such as Princess Diana or Robin Williams is, to some extent, connected with a need to celebrate one’s own life. Your dad may have taken you to see Aladdin. You may remember sitting exams when the princess’s wedding was taking place (as I did). A little part of your life has just moved away.

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