Editor's note: This article contains language that may be offensive to som..." /> Editor's note: This article contains language that may be offensive to som..." />

Finding Compassion and Hope after the Loss of Robin Williams

robin williamsEditor’s note: This article contains language that may be offensive to some readers and may be inappropriate for younger audiences.

I was 8 years old the first time I remember peeing my pants from uncontrollable laughter. My little brother and I were watching one of our favorite shows, Mork & Mindy. We both peed our pants and soaked the carpet beneath us. Let’s just say that “Shazbot” was not the word my dad used when he noticed the damp spot a couple of hours later. If only we had been sitting upside down the way Mork from Ork would, we might have spared the carpet.

Now, I don’t have any direct connection to Robin Williams, never knew him, wasn’t related, and in many ways, it’s not my loss to grieve. It’s his family’s loss, it’s the loss of all his loved ones. But, like millions of people who heard the news this week of Robin’s passing, my heart sank with grief and sadness. Like millions of others, I loved a man I never met.

This morning I wondered if anyone ever really knew Robin, knew what he was struggling with inside, knew the depth of his pain, knew the hopelessness he must have felt. Was it self-contempt? Guilt and shame? Anxiety? Many things can push a person toward suicide, but there is always hopelessness.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook last night: “Depression is a motherfucker. If you ever need an ear, I’ve got two good ones. Don’t be afraid to hit me up, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Thank you, Kenzo, you are so right.

It made we wonder about Robin. Who was his ear? Did he have anyone in his life he could trust enough to fall apart on? Because of powerful, backward, ill-conceived stigma, it’s hard enough to consider seeking help when you’re not famous. People don’t want to be viewed as weak or flawed or helpless.

I can only imagine the conflict that many celebrities face when they need help but fear the consequences to their career, their reputation. Certainly, Robin seemed to be more transparent and comfortable than most with his demons, but most everyone has skeletons they don’t want others to see or they’re afraid of seeing themselves.

Many people come to therapy afraid of looking inside. They want to feel better, and they usually want to get rid of some part of themselves they don’t like, whether it’s anxiety, self-criticism, anger, addiction, grief, etc.

In healthy therapy, we don’t help people to amputate parts of themselves they don’t like. Even Sigmund Freud knew this was a bad idea, and he keenly warned how if we remove a person’s primary defense mechanism, another one would take its place. So, instead of amputating, we help people to shift into curiosity, to get to know the part of themselves they don’t like, to understand why they do what they do, and to have compassion for how these parts are trying to help. As Carl Rogers once wrote, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

But accepting ourselves is not easy. You can’t simply transcend your struggles by telling yourself lovely affirmations all day. If you’re going to once and for all untangle and transform, unburden and heal, and truly love yourself, then you’re going to have to find all the parts of yourself you haven’t loved, all the parts that were hidden away so you could survive your childhood. These are the parts that Richard Schwartz, founder of the Internal Family Systems model of therapy, calls “exiles.”

Exiles often hold tremendous pain. They are stuck in the past, like a feedback loop or short circuit, still remembering and still experiencing the suffering. These are the parts that feel worthless, shameful, not good enough, lousy, neglected, abused, hated, unaccepted, and kicked off the planet.

In therapy, I often ask people what they would do if there was a crying baby in their arms. Would they carry it to a room and leave it to cry, closing the door on the way out? Or would they hold the baby close against their heart for as long as it took for the baby to settle? Would they ignore the baby or find out what the baby needed?

Many of us know how to take care of babies, but because we weren’t compassionately cared for as children, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves. So many people don’t know how to have a good cry, how to hold themselves with compassion, tenderness, and feel whatever pain needs to be felt. If the majority of people on planet knew how to have a good cry, I could sleep peacefully at night knowing that my children’s grandchildren will still have a planet to live on—that’s how important crying is.

Instead, most of us run from our pain. And it makes sense that we do. People in therapy typically fear being overwhelmed by their “exiles,” making them worse, or discovering that they’re true—that they really are worthless or flawed. This is a big reason people never seek help. It’s a big reason people fall into the black hole of hopelessness.

It breaks my heart that Robin may have been alone with his pain. It breaks my heart that he may have, like millions of others, gone through life without ever tending to whatever dark burdens he was harboring.

Like my buddy Kenzo, I want everyone to know that you don’t have to continue suffering alone. You were born a loving, lovable, and beautiful person, fully equipped to love yourself, to find joy and satisfaction in life.

Yes, shit happens. We get hurt and we protect ourselves from ever feeling or getting hurt again. We isolate and quarantine the hurt parts of ourselves, compensating for them, pretending they’re not there, not letting anyone see or know. Indeed, we all struggle, we all suffer in this life; many do it alone. The anxiety can be so great that we become paralyzed by fear, the depression so heavy that we can’t get out of bed in the morning. The self-criticism so intense, we come to hate ourselves. The anger so great that we want to destroy and destruct everything in our path. The hopelessness so thick that we see no option other than taking our own life.

Once you’ve fallen into that abyss, it’s hard to climb out. But you can. Everyone is capable of healing, untangling, and returning to the calm, compassionate, confident being they were born equipped to be.

But getting out of that abyss isn’t easy and isn’t going to be pretty. It’s going to be hard. It may take time, a lot of time. And you will have to grieve in a way you’ve never let yourself grieve before. Your heart will break. It will break for yourself; later, it will break for everyone else. Your body may shake and tremble. You will cry for hours, maybe days. You will fall apart for a while, if you need to.

But your therapist will be there for you, witnessing compassionately, supporting you, trusting the process, knowing you will get through to the other side if only you keep going, remembering and seeing who you really are even when you can’t.

It’s not hopeless. It never has been. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve been through, or what barriers may be in the way. If you commit yourself and keep asking for help, help will come your way.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Jordyn

    August 14th, 2014 at 5:31 PM

    It’s all so sad to think about the kind of pain that he likely held inside for so long and then got to the point where he thought that the only solkution for himself and for his family was suicide. It breaks my heart to think that this man who brought so many smiles and laughs to so many of us was not able to find this for his own self. Rest In Peace, Robin Williams, for you will surely be missed.

  • Michelle V

    August 14th, 2014 at 6:10 PM

    Wow! What an amazing article! In my years of going to therapy I have never heard anything explained quite like this….these words are life changing.

  • ellen

    August 15th, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    What shocks me the most about thsi whole tragedy is just how cruel other people can be about someone else and their journey that they know absolutely nothing about. Where is the humanity and compassion when we need it the most?

  • Cassidy

    August 15th, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    I hate that something like this always seems to have to happen before more people sit up and take notice that this is actually going on all the time and that there are a lot of people out there hurting on the inside who are trying so hard not to show that pain on the outside. One of the ebst things that we can do is to simply be kind to evryone, because we don’t know what pain they are feeling. I saw something that said something like that on FB, maybe not verbatim, but you get the drift and it is an excellent point to spread and share with all.

  • leigh

    August 16th, 2014 at 10:47 AM

    The hope that now springs for this is that this can now help others talk about what may have been so painful to them in the past.

    This gives you an outlet to now share those thoughts and to not have to feel ashamed or lost because of them.

    There are many for whom this is an issue or who have watched family members struggle and yet we all feel helpless because there are no real answers or solutions. But at least this gets us thinking about it, helping us come to the realization that this is an issue that thousands fight with daily.

    I think that RW would be proud to know that he kept the conversation going in a meaningful way even after his death.

  • Susannah-Joy

    August 17th, 2014 at 1:30 AM

    The freedom of the Internet has provided a perfect platform for assumptions, jumping to the Island of Conclusion, and mind reading like a pro, and Robin Williams’ suicide has raised the output to astounding levels.
    Your article pretty much sum up the hell and the hope that is ubiquitous to depression and mental illness.
    Thanks, Noah.

  • Heathley

    August 18th, 2014 at 5:10 AM

    Is there any way to find hope after something tragic such as this?
    This was one of our greatest entertainers, and rather than making me hopeful, this loss shows me that even in his private as well as public life, he was forced to wear this facade that he thought that others wanted to see.
    I am saddened because I wonder how many others feel this need to cover and hide every single day. This is what this illness can do to you.

  • yolanda f.

    August 19th, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    It makes me angry when I read all these comments that some are making that he deserved this and that he should be so ashamed for doing this to his family. Okay, I know that there is a lot of hurt to go around after someone commits suicide but that is not a reason to continue to spew hatred and ignorance. Yes the family hurts but do we really think that mean comments from those of us who didn’t even know him will in any way make them feel better? don’t think so. We need to be mindful that this was a person who struggled for years with mental illness and addiction and he finally reached his breaking point. How about seeing the sadness in this instead of seeing it as another opportunity to be self righteous?

  • Sue

    July 23rd, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    Its sad that after making so many people laugh he was sad on the inside. We need to look beyond peoples laughter and into their hearts. May God help us to see beyond the smile and look into the eyes and hear the silent cries

  • irina

    September 7th, 2015 at 2:23 PM


    I am so sorry for your loss. Unfortunately, you are 100% correct about the how mental illness is perceived in today’s world and that it is not considered an illness like cancer, when it absolutely is. People are lacking awareness and understanding that it is a disease, and therefore, people with this deserve deserve respect and public (friends, families, neighbors) should offer/provide support just like how they support their loved ones with cancer.

  • margaret

    September 5th, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    I am convinced that the writers and producers put Robin Williams in a film to see how he would cope with the dark side of his personality. if he continued with comedy films, he would still be alive.

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