O Captain! – Reflections on the Death of Robin Williams

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In the days since the news of Robin William’s death rocked Hollywood and the world I have been drawn back to some of my favorite scenes from his movies. I have found myself smiling and laughing again at the absurdity of Mrs. Doubtfire dousing out a fire as her sumptuous bosom went up in flames, of Genie flowing out of a magic lamp with a crick in his neck.

Robin Williams was a truly talented man who brought life and voice to hundreds of characters that have delighted and moved us. But nothing is quite as moving as the way in which this amazing man died. In the midst of a life dedicated to bringing humor and laughter to the world, we are told that Robin Williams was not able to find reasons to smile in his own life. His struggles with depression and the sadness that must have surely crept into his soul caused him to find solace only by ending it all.

It is in this final act of Robin William’s life that he speaks most poignantly to us. He is not speaking with a foreign accent or ranting as a comic mad man. His words are not coming as he prances around on stage or flies through Neverland. Instead, his voice comes to us quietly and in the chambers of our souls.

In the whisper of his death, Robin is imploring each of us to be attentive to the difficulties and realities of mental health issues. He is inviting us to attend to our own suffering or the suffering of those around us and to seek help. We cannot pretend that struggles with depression, substance abuse or other debilitating diseases of the mind and soul will simply fly away on a magic carpet. Instead, Robin Williams reminds us that we need to take mental health issues seriously and be very proactive in dealing with the many forms of pain and suffering that haunt so many.

In one of the final moments of the movie Dead Poets Society in which Williams played the enthusiastic literature teacher John Keating, Williams picks up a book that belonged to his student who had taken his own life. Williams opens the book and sorrowfully reads a quote from David Henry Thoreau:

    I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberatively.
    I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life!
    To put to name all that was not life.
    And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

In his death, Robin Williams reminds us to live deliberatively and to suck out all the marrow of life. That can only happen if we are in a place where life doesn’t feel constantly overwhelming.

If you or a friend or family member are struggling, please know that you are not alone. There are many who have walked in your shoes or accompanied someone through tough times. If you want to reach out to someone who can help, here are links to a few resources (click on them):

DePaul University Counseling Services
Veterans Crisis Line
National Suicide Hotline
National Helpline ( for individuals and families facing mental health and/or substance use disorders)

Rev. Diane Dardon is Protestant Chaplain with DePaul University’s Office of Religious Diversity

Flight 370: Questions, emotions – and a lesson

Flight 370

Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur. The questions abound. From Twitter to casual conversations, from news streams to classroom discussions, questions about a missing jet filled with innocent people roll out as fast as ticker tape in a hot market. How does a HUGE jet just vanish? Was it a conspiracy? What if it’s a terrorist plot—what’s the end game? What about the people on the plane—when did they know something was wrong—are they alive—and if they’re alive, are they ok? Why hasn’t Malaysia been transparent about the investigation? Even today, thirteen days after Flight 370 went off grid, with chatter about potential wreckage sited in the Indian Ocean, more questions emerge. If the flight went down, was it mechanical…why was the plane diverted? The many questions surrounding this mysterious event will continue to be asked even if we never have solid answers – and even if we do. We humans must ask questions….why, when, how, why, when, where, why….?

Flight 370. The emotions are all over the place. Fear fills the hearts of families and friends who are clamoring for information. Anger explodes in the face of a perceived “run around.” Desperation hovers in the home where mother and child cling to the hope that the person who cares for them and offers them their only security is perhaps just missing. Frustration oozes out of the experts. Sympathy flows from those who know from their own experience how horrible it is to wait and wonder for hours, days, weeks. Apathy enters in on the part of those who are busy and distracted with their own struggles of life—sometimes followed by a sense of guilt for not reacting like “everyone else.” Ambiguity sums it up for others. And perhaps we might even name a gnawing sense of morbid curiosity driving those who cannot get enough tweets, news updates, and conversations about the mysterious missing flight. Each and every one of these reactions—or lack thereof—is legitimate in this situation and in all situations of life. Ours is the task of accepting our place on an emotional roller coaster and allowing others to enter into their emotional space on a crazy, mysterious ride that makes no sense at all.

Flight 370. The lessons are significant. Boeing is learning how to make cockpits even safer. Nations are learning—we hope—the importance of collaboration and communication. Satellite companies and governments are convinced that much more than a ping is necessary and possible in this global world of uncertainties and dangers. Families and communities are discovering ways of supporting one another. And we…those of us so far removed…we have things to learn also. The mysterious and confusing circumstances surrounding what should have been a routine part of life hold a lesson that comes to us from family and friends of the 239 who are watching, waiting, wondering. The last conversations, the last text messages, the last moments with their beloveds are being remembered and revisited over and over again. And herein lies our lesson: every interaction, every conversation, every action, every selfie, every moment leaves a footprint in the hearts and minds of others. Flight 370 has taught us that—again. In the midst of this mystery each of us has another routine moment to offer kindness, honesty, helpfulness, integrity, caring, loving, goodness. Each of us has the gift of this moment to honor the 239 missing souls and their loved ones by living and being the kind and loving people I believe we are all created to be. With questions swirling through our minds and emotions beating in our hearts, we have this moment—perhaps our only moment—to leave a footprint of kindness and love. In the midst of that which makes no sense at all–in the midst of the mystery behind Flight 370- may we learn the importance of every moment.

-Rev. Diane Dardon

God’s Plan (part 3)

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Many times, as people—especially people of faith—try to make sense of death (and life), some will say, “This is all part of God’s plan.” Every time I hear this I have to ask, “Is the death of someone we love and value in life part of God’s plan?” I do not believe that God has a great cosmic calendar that indicates my comings and goings in life.  For me as a mainline Lutheran pastor,  I have learned that words—even words of Grace–never seem adequate and can even cause more angst and confusion. Prayers (mostly in the heart), hugs, tears, silence,  listening and simply being with the broken–letting them know they have a safe place–are my responses to those who are hurting. This is my plan for living out God’s grace in the face of things in life that are senseless. 

But Katie asked me to provide a perspective on where people might be coming from when they say, “This is part of God’s plan” during tragic moments.  So, I asked for clarification from students and friends and colleagues who believe that God does have a particular plan that includes suffering, struggling and dying.  

What I learned is that there are some who believe that God’s plan is to bring us to our knees and “humble us” through difficulties in life. It is in those broken places that we will find God and be drawn back to a relationship with God.  In other words, some people NEED tragedy and death to “wake them up to the love of God.” God knows what we need, and sometimes it’s suffering or loss. So your loss is part of a plan for your overall good.

Another thing I heard is that God does not have some great cosmic plan for each of us but it IS God’s plan to use the difficulties, death, darkness of life to help us understand that the only way we will find peace and hope and be restored to joy is through God and the love of Jesus. If we face the challenges and difficulties in life by turning against God or ignoring God’s presence in our life, we will remain in the broken and sorrowful places of life. Therefore, God’s plan is to use life’s struggles and sorrows to move us toward healing that can only come through Jesus.  

Others believe that nothing happens outside of God’s plan, so even terrible tragedies have significance and purpose.  Life and events are not meaningless and hopeless. So if I tell you a terrible loss is part of God’s plan perhaps you will feel it is redemptive in some way – had some reason for happening – rather than just being some uncontrollable event in a nihilistic world, which would make the pain of the loss even worse.  These people may believe that limited human understanding cannot comprehend what God has in mind, but if I reassure you that everything is part of a plan you simply cannot understand you might feel better about it.

I am sure there are many more reasons to say, “It’s all part of God’s plan,” but most of the people I spoke to see it as being comforting and reassuring.

God’s Plan (Part 1)

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What do you say to someone who is grieving?  I’ve been thinking about it since reviewing a recent string of comments on my Facebook page.

When a former high school classmate ended a Facebook comment saying she miscarried her child in the second trimester, I was struck by her vulnerability in sharing her loss and wondered if anyone else would notice.

Some alumni of the all-girls Catholic high school we had both attended responded. Mostly just “sorry for your loss.” I gasped aloud, however, to read “God has his reasons” and then “Loss is always so sad and hard to work through but one silver lining is that you have your little one right next to God looking out for you! Happy New Year!”

I find “it’s all God’s plan” troubling and leading to questions grieving people probably don’t find comforting: “Really, we have a God whose plan is the death of children?  God plans random accidents and oppression? How does God formulate these ‘plans’ and why is the plan for my loved one? If my kids hear this will they fear God taking them out because mom needs some more supporters up in heaven?”

But I do feel torn.  I believe in a powerful and loving God who does have plans for the world, who hears our prayers and responds.  I take comfort (eventually) that God makes good come from bad, though I rarely want to be told that in a moment of crisis. I’ve been taught God is Love and Love in my mind doesn’t “plan” sadness like miscarriages and typhoons, though Love does create us to live in a world where sad, tragic, and violent things happen.  Is it enough of a comfort we are given the dignity to maneuver, contribute, cry and laugh through that world with the support of people we love, and a loving God?

I could get all theological here.  There are roots in my tradition to support “God has a plan” responses.  Clearly people are being taught it’s a good thing to say and it may be comforting to the woman who lost her baby – I hope so! But I felt the need to process the topic with some colleagues.  Mat was eager to know why people offer such sentiments and his reflection on his experience follows.  Diane said she could help me see where the many people who do like to reassure with “It’s part of God’s plan” are coming from.  And Tom helped still my intellectual ramblings when I asked his opinion about the “God has a plan” response.  He said, “Well experience teaches us not to say that – most people really don’t like to hear it!”

Some people might, but as a general rule I avoid it.