When Famous People Die

When a well-known person, especially someone who acquires a considerable measure of fame dies suddenly, media (and now, social media) lights up with first the news, and then, reflections on the famous person’s life. The apparent suicide of actor, Robin Williams, is another case in point. Prior to Williams, you had the unexpected death of another actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, to a drug overdose.

My introduction to Robin Williams.

My introduction to Robin Williams.

People in the spotlight—actors, musicians, athletes, politicians—have their personalities and public personas broadcast into our living rooms, and their actions are splashed across the pages of newspapers, magazines, and tabloids, as well as the phenomenon of their “trending” status via a platform like Twitter.

In 2008, I learned about the death of writer, David Foster Wallace, in a text sent by my son. Wallace committed suicide, by hanging. I didn’t know Wallace, except through his writing, especially his nonfiction writing, which I adored and was reading voraciously at the time. I’d later read his long, 1,047 1104 page novel, his most famous work, Infinite Jest.

At the time of his death, I posted extensively on a blog of mine that got deep-sixed thanks to the platform, Posterous, having most of its team scooped up by Twitter. That’s the here today, gone tomorrow nature of technology. Some readers didn’t get it and thought maybe I’d gone off the deep end.

Life is mysterious. Those who claim to know it are merely deceiving themselves, or hiding behind some veil that makes them a bit more comfortable with its ambiguity.

It’s always interesting to me that whenever someone ends their life, there are the whispers, and in the case of Robin Williams—publicly uttered—insinuations that the person who commits suicide is a “selfish,” or worse. I don’t buy that!

I came across some statistics on suicide at Psychology Today’s website.

More than 36,000 people in the U.S. kill themselves every year, according to a 2010 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although most federally-funded suicide prevention programs focus on helping teenagers, recent years have seen a spike in rates among middle-aged people. Men seem to be especially at risk, and have nearly four times the suicide rate as women.

I didn’t know Robin Williams personally—I only knew him through his movies, and the persona that he let me see when he was acting. Perhaps others that knew him well will have something more to say in the coming days. I do know that his wife offered the following statement that I read last night, shortly after learning of the news of his death.

“This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken. On behalf of Robin’s family we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

Like I’ve done following Wallace’s death, I will focus on Williams’ legacy, as an actor, a comedian, and the other good things I can take away from a life ended prematurely.

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