Why I Waited a Month to Write About Robin Williams

When we try to fix things fast, we never get to feel them fully. And we need to feel them fully, because the solutions to our biggest problems lie at the bottom of our grief. If we don’t get better at grieving, we can’t get better at living…

Robin Williams

Photo Credit: Kate Dreyer via Compfight cc

Last month, my friend was in a car accident. The car was totaled. He texted me a picture of it and let me know everyone was okay. Reassured of his safety, the next question on my mind was, “Whose fault was it?”

The human mind likes to look for fault and to assign blame.

Last month, Robin Williams committed suicide. A shocking, tragic loss. And instantly, Twitter and Facebook lit up with debates about depression and suicide and illness versus choice. Mental health debates. Theological debates. Existential debates. Almost all of them sincere debates argued by caring, passionate people. We need to talk about such things. Dialogue is essential.  But the debate happened so fast.

Sometimes, we fight so we don’t have to feel.

Sometimes, we trade jeers so we don’t have to trade tears.

Fixing vs. Feeling

Robin Williams and depression. Ferguson and racism. ISIS and war. Gaza and religion. Newtown and guns. Ebola and safety and social privilege. Tragedy strikes and we instantly light up cyberspace with arguments about what is to blame and who is at fault and how to fix the problem.

It helps us to feel in control—if someone is to blame then there is a cause and an effect and the universe isn’t random or capricious. It helps us to feel innocent—if the other guy is to blame then we don’t have to bear the burden of guilt. And, most commonly and honorably, finding fault and assigning blame can help us solve the problem. When things go wrong, we want to fix them for the future.

But when we try to fix things fast, we never get to feel them fully. And that’s a real problem. Because the solutions to our most pressing concerns don’t lie within the heated exchange of our ideas; they lie at the bottom of our grief.

If we don’t get better at grieving, we can’t get better at living.

From Fear to Sorrow

When my son was only a few months old, we took him to the pediatrician for a routine wellness exam. It didn’t end in a routine way. She was concerned about a condition called cranial stenosis, in which the plates in the skull fuse prematurely. She told us the condition could result in physical disfigurement, neurological complications, even death.

And then she told us we’d have to wait months for a definitive diagnosis—surgery could not be performed until he was much older, so it was prudent to delay x-rays until they would be safer for his developing body. Months of waiting on our son’s fate. Months of WebMD searches. Months in which I could barely look at the little guy—every time I saw his head, my insides lit up with panic.

Then, one day, as I was driving and praying, I became aware I was stuck in the bargaining stage of grief, and I began to wonder what kind of sadness lay just beneath my anxiety. So I pulled over, took a deep breath, found a place of stillness within me, and I waited for the sadness to come.

And come it did.

Deep waves of grief about the future of my little boy. The depth of it surprised me. Because it wasn’t limited to grief about his potential diagnosis. Up welled grief about the fact that, even if his life goes perfectly, he will one day be gone. And, even if everything goes perfectly, I’ll be gone before him. Grief that life is fragile and uncertain and limited and that’s just way it is.

As the waves of sadness ebbed, I drove home, entered the house, saw my little boy, and for the first time in weeks, the sight of him didn’t trigger anxiety. It triggered tenderness. I reached out and I held him tight, not to protect him, but to love him more deeply because I knew I couldn’t protect him.

At the bottom of our grief lies the solution to our problems, because at the bottom of our grief always lies the inexorable desire to hold each other like we’re dying. Can you imagine a world in which everyone is holding each other like they’re dying?

Grieving So We Can Live

What if when Robin Williams died, we all just paused our debates for a day to feel the grief of it? What if the sorrow sent us into an embrace of the depressed and despairing people we love?

What if when we saw the image of the Australian-school-kid-turned-ISIS-soldier holding the decapitated head of a Syrian militant, we paused for an hour to feel the grief of it? What if we experienced that horrendous violence as a natural extension of the subtle violence we commit every day in our families and our friendships and in every brush with a stranger on the road? How might our anger dissolve into tenderness?

What if when our fear rises up about Ebola patients being transported to our country, we dwelled just a little while on their humanity? What if we closed our eyes and imagined our closest loved one half a world away, bleeding from the inside out? I wonder if our anxiety would give way to compassion. I wonder if we’d want to bring them back ourselves.

We need to become a world that gets good at grieving.

We have to surrender to it.

We have to feel our way to the bottom of our sorrow so we can get to the bottom of this mystery we call life. Because at the bottom of the mystery is a singular reality:

We were, all of us, made for each other.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: The Whole Truth About How (Not) Rotten People Can Be

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • nico

    i remember this phrase “what we avoid feeling, persists”

    thanks for your article once again. if only more people knew this

    • drkellyflanagan

      I had not heard that phrase before, Nico, and now I won’t forget it. Thank you.

    • MistyLane23

      So simple and insightful, and yet often overlooked. So glad you stated this for everyone. Thank you.

    • Colleen Shields

      Another way of saying it is: What we FEEL, we can HEAL

  • Mike

    Yes, yes, yes…underneath the panic, the fear…lies a tenderness. Good stuff, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Mike.

  • Colleen Shields

    Amen. The Velveteen Rabbit syndrome: to be real, we must feel.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Colleen! Great call; I hadn’t made the connection!

  • Kathi

    So appreciate this post and love the Velveteen Rabbit reference. Grief is a leveler, as we all experience it in some form or another. Would that this were our first response…

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kathi, you used the perfect word: leveler. It puts us on common ground, the only ground we can meet on.

      • Colleen Shields

        It’s the common denominator of our mutual humanity

  • cj

    Once again you have spoken about something personal to me. Grief is much harder to hold than anger even though the latter perpetuates the damage of whatever event occurred. I think you are too right when you say that we need to let the grief rise to the top. I know I’m afraid that if I do that, it will never end and subsequently drown me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      CJ, I know that feeling well, too. It is the great fear. And it takes great faith to go into it and to trust that peace is on the other side. The “night is darkest right before the dawn” is a cliche, but it is indeed true when it comes to grief.

    • Colleen Shields

      That’s the LIE, CJ. In actuality, what we find after feeling the grief, is the tenderness and love that Kelly experienced. Anger is a protective, secondary emotion to cover up the more ego-vulnerable grief.

  • Tammy J. Breeding

    I too had a son whose Pediatrician was concerned about Cranial
    Stenosis. I know well the anxiety, panic and grief a diagnosis can generate. It turned out that he didn’t have it(praise God), but I àdmit to being in survival mode, instead of feeling it. Great blog, you have a gift for speaking truth in love!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Tammy. It’s a horrible feeling and I’ve heard from parents today who are in that waiting place. I’m glad your son was cleared.

  • JonathanHunter

    “Can you imagine a world in which everyone is holding each other like they’re dying?”
    Yes. yes I can. And it brings me to tears. My whole life I have waited for this sentence. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jonathan, a friend of mine gave a talk on leadership around this idea. It’s probably how the phrase got into my head. You might enjoy it, too. Here’s the link:

      http://youtu.be/mJOwdzPPf-M

      • JonathanHunter

        Thanks, Doc!

  • Jacqueline Michelle Boxall

    The depth of sorrow beneath fear/anxiety/loss…motivates us toward tenderness. Thankfulness for every moment, every hour, every day with the ones we love. I particularly love how it was when you pulled off the side of the road to allow yourself to feel this sorrow that your fear dissipated and sorrow and tenderness came. It’s Gods heart!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Right on, Jacqueline.

  • Carrie

    This reminds me of the time I was running from some darkness in my life. My therapist told me to go there instead of running from it. It took me months to get brave enough to go there. When I did, I thought I went to the wrong place, because what I found there was peace and comfort. Usually I eat instead of leaning into the feelings. I’m not sure why, because it helps when I allow myself to feel the feelings. Hm, maybe this is my reminder this morning. Maybe instead of making a mocha, I’ll take a moment to acknowledge that I am feeling something, to wonder what it might be, to allow myself to feel it.
    Thanks for the reminder, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Absolutely, Carrie. Regularly practicing that could change everything for all of us. And then be sure to have the mocha afterward. : )

  • Carolyn Faivre

    This is quit a wonderful and wise post. Thank you for you commitment to writing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Carolyn; you’re welcome.

  • Sally

    Thank you. I needed to read this.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Sally.

  • Melissa

    What did happen with your son? I hope the fact you didn’t follow up in your story means everything was just normal.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Melissa, I have a bad habit of not giving updates about potential crises I mention in the post. Sorry! Yes, his x-rays turned out to be normal. However, I’ve received a number of messages from folks today who have not been so fortunate. This can be a painful time of waiting for many parents.

  • Candice Marquette

    I almost feel like I should pay a session fee for these blog post because they are so helpful. I just had a upsetting call yesterday where a loved one has decided to continue staying in a abusive unhealthy relationship. Just when we thought he was getting out- he’s back in. Male victims don’t get as much publicity .

    Anger, disappointment and fear were the emotions I cycled through. Your post might help me shift into the grief because it is truly heartbreaking to witness abusive love. I hope I can find the courage to go down that deep in the well.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Candice, I think you’re right; you’re already going through grief about it, so calling it that and attending to it in that way may give you more clarity in the process, and perhaps in how to approach him. I hope he finds the courage to take care of himself.

  • Claudette

    Touched by this, personally, going through anxiety/grief of dealing with leukemia, and on the global front, it is frightening how people quickly react, especially if they are afraid

    • drkellyflanagan

      Claudette, I’m sorry to hear about your diagnosis and the struggle you’re facing. My anecdote from the post seems so inadequate in the midst of what you’re facing. I am glad it was helpful, though.

  • Dave Bacher

    Kelly, Thanks for the reminder of the life-giving side of grief. It’s interesting when we think about the legacy of someone like Robin Williams, or any loved one for that matter. Their legacy is not attached to what they did, it’s attached to what we do after their gone. Sadly, our culture doesn’t allow time for grief but your words today can set us up to choose a life-giving way to walk through it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, Dave.

  • Kelly, again you spoke so much beauty and truth. There were so many lines that I really resonated with, but I guess the one I most want to focus on is “If we don’t get better at grieving, we can’t get better at living.” So much wisdom there! Our world has so very much to grieve, we don’t have to look very far, unfortunately. I think you are so right in saying that we jumped too quickly to find someone to blame for Robin’s death. I think the truth is better to see how so terribly, terribly sad the whole situation was – for him and his family and loved ones – and to just spend the time in that grief and sorrow. It is true that when we go to the depths of our grief, we find peace and comfort and consolation, as illogical as that may seem to be. Yet, that is the irony of life — it is inclusive of apparent opposites and it is only when we hold opposites together in tension that there can be peace. Thank you again for a great post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenny, I’m half tempted to re-edit the post and insert your comment! An acknowledgement of the paradox of grief is certainly right on. Thank you for this. Beautifully said.

      • You are very kind. Thank you for that.

  • Cherrie1st

    In both my Working With Families and Social Justice classes last night we discussed grief and grieving. Very good insights as usual, Dr. Kelly!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Cherrie!

  • Renee

    You are brave and articulate. I think reading this post just changed my life.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Wow, Renee. I hope that is true and I hope when it stops feeling true you’ll reference this moment as your true north, and set out for it again.

      • Renee

        It is true, six weeks later. I love those moments in life — those connections, those reflections in a mirror that someone else unwittingly holds up for me — that remind me of who I am. It’s not just that — it’s moments that allow me to glimpse into a better version of myself that I can become. It’s still helping me through the hardest time in my life.

  • gbjedi

    Thank you so much for your posts! I love the idea that some things we have to fight for, and others we just have to yield to. See https://www.facebook.com/gbjedi/posts/10153180298499097

  • Debbi

    What a good post! I love this and have found it to be so true! Sometimes it feels like the grief just goes on and on and on. But I am so much more connected with myself and with those around me when I just sit quietly and let myself grieve.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, Debbi, connected with self and others, that truly is the outcome!

  • Cathy

    Another insightful and powerful meditative commentary, Kelly! Thanks.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Cathy!

  • Thank you Kelly for this article. For myself, I have been for the last few months been going through what I feel to be excessive stress in my life. Between work and being caregiver to my elderly mother, I have felt pulled apart and have at time found it to be very difficult to find the compassion for others, my mother and myself. Thank you for reminding me of this. I am printing this and putting it on my fridge so it is in my face daily as a reminder.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jason, courage and strength to you as you try to shoulder so much. At the same time, it is indeed okay to sink into our weakness and to find a different kind of strength there. My best to you.

  • Tom

    Thank you for this. My son died a year and a half ago at age 17. He was perfectly healthy and got the flu, then was taken over by virus and infection. We continue to grieve. Your words are important and inspirational.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Oh, Tom, I am so sorry. I’m glad my words found there way to you at this time. I wish I could do more.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Grief is definitely valuable, important, and necessary work that we neglect only to our detriment.
    There is a space for it to be a very solitary enterprise. But I think that some of what may look like a rush to engage in fevered and oppositional dialogue may stem from a place of wanting to know that as we grieve, we are not alone. When the contours of our grief are different from those around us — because we see the world differently, we’ve moved through life differently, or we want to make sense of what has happened differently — we can shift to anger, hurt, and blame not only because of the tragedy that prompted us to reach out, but because we fear that the disagreement in it all means that we really are alone in it.
    When we grieve, there are ways that pain and sorrow is all our own. But it is a sacred thing to share grief when it is raw and fresh and wild. And as with anything special and sacred, it is not to be thrown around carelessly. What a rare thing it is to find someone we can share our grief with before it is tamed.

    • drkellyflanagan

      “What a rare thing it is to find someone we can share our grief with before it is tamed.” I like that better than anything in my post, Shel. And I’m with you, I think much of the engagement following his death was just that, engagement, in the best way we know how.

    • Crazy Carol

      I appreciate your sharing the complexity of grief and how people are affected by the support and empathy they find (or the lack thereof). It can be the difference between recovering from trauma and having PTSD.

  • MistyLane23

    Hi Dr. Flanagan, thank you for this, and all your wonderful articles. Do you often find that grief is rejected by others because it’s so emotionally, labor intensive and difficult, and people don’t want to go through it? And also, they don’t want to be a participant in any way, in your grief either? I have experienced this frequently, it’s as if you’re being negative, focusing on the negative and not trying to move on, and you’re wrecking their day by having your grief. They want a time frame on it, want you to get over it and get back to the business of life. But, I have found, after 51 years of life, that grief is sometimes a daily business for many, but they are not allowed to grieve and therefore cannot move forward or heal.

  • Erica D.

    Thank you for your words and willingness to always dig deep. This was timely not only because of all the public loss and reasons to grieve recently, but for me personally. I have had a couple reasons to grieve recently, but there is no time. The pause that is required causes me anxiety about the things that aren’t getting done! “If we don’t get better at grieving, we can’t get better at living.” So, I guess to get beyond merely existing and getting things done, I have to surrender to the grief.

  • SMacD.

    This is a brilliant post. Thank you.

  • Lay Lin

    I wonder if you had not thought you were in the “bargaining” stage of grief, you would have still felt the same as you did. In my own experience, grief has no stages and perhaps because you know about Kubler Ross’ 5 Stages of grief, it affected the way you grieve. At the bottom of grief is the sudden realisation that nothing is permanent and life is fragile and we need to show our love before it is too late.

  • A.Bala Subramaniam

    Thank you for the insightful article. I am deeply moved by this and the new perspective it gives me on life. I find that the ability to reflect is generally going down in these days of instant-gratification. Much appreciate the idea. And you write very well.:-)

  • Julie Bielecki Baun

    Words just cannot describe the way this piece writes for my soul. The line is so continually blurred between the beauty of life and the brevity of life and it’s as though I FEEL that tension all the time. As if I live there. And though that makes me emotional and sometimes complex, and quite frankly, a lot, it feels like…life. Thank you, once again, Dr. Flanagan.

  • Linda Synnott

    Outstanding article. Yours was the first to acknowledge the valuable role that grieving plays in our collectively conscious life.

  • Vic and Monique

    Excellent blogpost Kelly! Thanks again for your soulful insights! So many events in the news cause us grief and we don’t pause to grieve in the busyness of American culture. Pete and Geri Scazzero, in their book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, address this in a chapter titled; Expanding Your Soul through Grief and Loss. Excellent! Honestly, “expanding my soul through grief” never entered my mind before reading this book. I am now giving God a chance to do a deeper work in me as I “pause” to reflect, take an interior look beneath the surface of the “iceberg” that is me. Another opportunity to grieve for all of us passionate about marriage is the tragedy of the Ray Rice story. You see everything you talk about in your blog happening to divert our attention from our own sadness and how we might see Ray and his wife in a different light.

  • nicole

    Dr Flanagan, your writing inspires me to be a better person every time I read a new post. I send it to all my friends as I find them so refreshingly honest, inspiring and
    clever, they are amazing insights and I hope you continue to inspire us. Thank you.

  • Brian Shimer

    Yes! Just yes!! Thank you for this!!!

  • Jules

    Thank you for this post. I’m dealing with a friend that is dying and your question “Can you imagine a world in which everyone is holding each other like they’re dying?” moved me to tears. It is such a beautiful thought and put me in touch with my own grief. Thank you for that.

  • Steve

    Beautifully put. As usual. Thank you.

  • Jamie U

    Love everything about this post.

  • john m

    “We’ve go to Carry Each Other, Carry Each Other.. ohh, ohh” ~ ONE~U2…