Robin Williams’ death earlier this month has struck fans across the world like a blunt club. As tributes multiplied in the subsequent media frenzy, one tweet in particular from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been called “heartbreaking” and “perfect” on viral sites. “Genie, you’re free,” it read, paired with a screenshot from “Aladdin.”
An article in The Washington Post, however, argued that the tweet’s use of the word “freedom” to refer to death via suicide romanticized the practice and may well increase the risk of copycat suicides.
I couldn’t help but agree.
The message that had seemed so touching and fitting now looked pernicious. It also reminded me of a discussion I had with my roommate last semester about why we honor the dead in particular. Why the maxim, “Never speak ill of the dead?”
It seemed weird to her. I had never questioned it before. I said it was because the dead couldn’t advocate for themselves. She reminded me that this attitude romanticizes death. Everyone who has passed away is now an angel in heaven. Death is but the next great adventure, a paradise of freedom from earthly pain.
Like many Georgetown students, I was raised Catholic. Theoretically, we are to look forward to this paradise, so long as we haven’t cursed without going to confession or killed anyone. But doesn’t deeming everyone who has died a saint — essentially regardless of behavior — delegitimize both Catholic guidelines in life and the honor bestowed upon the dead?
Celebrating our loved ones’ lives, their triumphs and their characters should certainly be a part of their passing and our grieving process. But excessive glorification of something we know nothing about, and, in the case of Robin Williams, someone we know very little about, can be harmful. As humans, we don’t like the unknown. We’re afraid of it. By mystifying death, we open the door for suicide to be idealized.
For those struggling with depression or other mental illnesses, death may well feel like a better option than the pain they experience. Moreover, a glorification of death and the dead can lead to increased acceptability of suicide in society. If we attempt to change our culture, though, to portray death as the void in our collective knowledge that it really is, it may be less appealing for the thousands who are on the edge.
Cultural norms about death and the afterlife surround us, and many of us have called on those lessons to understand tragedy when we face it head on. But demystifying death over time will ultimately make us less afraid in life. The anticipation of the great, whether good or bad, induces anxiety. It could be the sublime, awesome future that we often anticipate, or it could be nothing, devoid of a higher meaning, or of retribution or of freedom.
To even suggest such in the wake of death feels disrespectful. There remains a taboo on existential questions in the context of one of the greatest existential challenges we face.
Exploring our doubt and accepting that not every death must be beautiful are necessary steps to move beyond our own fear, to help combat the fears of others and to be more truthful in our celebration of those who have passed.
If death remains taboo and romantic, we will only be kept from conversations that could prevent suicides. As Robin Williams’ death has shown, mental illness can affect anyone. But similar situations need not reach the same conclusion. Of course, individual treatment is the best option, and changing the cultural conversation won’t erase all suicidal thoughts or tendencies. But it does have the potential to change one person’s mind. And that’s worth it.
Anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Laura Owsiany is a junior in the College.