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Akst: Darkness at the edge of … everything

Published: Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014 11:04 p.m. CDT

You couldn’t have scripted a worse Monday morning omen: the coffee maker clogged up, causing it to leak hot grounds and coffee all over.

But the rest of Monday was OK, so by Monday evening I had forgotten the coffee maker.

Monday evening was great. That storm brought cool, clear weather. I attended an event that was more pleasant and shorter than I thought it would be.

That meant there was time to catch the last part of my kid’s gymnastics practice at Energym Sports Campus, itself a happy place. An awesome song was playing as I drove to Energym, and my wife was happy to see me.

Then she told me, gently, that Robin Williams had committed suicide, and the happiness disintegrated.

I spent a few minutes trying not to burst into tears in front of mostly strangers, although by that time, others were talking about it. So I guess crying would have been an OK response.

My next inclination was inappropriate for someone who spent his career struggling with sobriety and making us laugh. I wanted to get drunk and break things.

That impulse has subsided, but I still walk around shaky. One of the worst flavors of grief is that phenomenon of the water seeming calm, and next thing you know, you’re pounded by a giant wave that comes from nowhere.

I had never studied Williams’ personal life and didn’t know about his longtime battle with depression and substance abuse. I don’t know if knowing would have made me feel less gut-kicked when I learned of his death.

His talent was beyond dispute. He was funnier than people knew how to grasp. Comedian Norm MacDonald called him “the funniest man in the world,” and nobody’s arguing. As a dramatic actor, he was equally skilled, earning an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and other accolades.

On Tuesday morning, we were watching YouTube clips of his work, and we realized our DVD collection has neither “Good Will Hunting” nor “Dead Poets Society,” so we ordered them from Amazon.com.

We’re waiting because Amazon ran out of stock.

Lots of entertainers have died in my adulthood, but few have hurt this bad. I’m not sure why. I remember feeling similarly when guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan died at 35 in 1990.

Some useful things – I can’t bring myself to call them good things – are coming from Mr. Williams’ death.

More people are beginning to realize that depression includes every demographic. It’s a big club.

And more people are realizing that depression isn’t a weakness or hypochondria or lack of faith. It’s a medical condition, a prevalent one affecting maybe as many as 1 in 10 people.

But I wish that one of the brightest and best had not died for this conversation to gain more space in the public sphere.

It’s also a chance for journalism to do better, although early reports are discouraging.

A friend posted a screen capture of the ABC News Los Angeles Web site on Facebook. The bottom of the screen quotes Mr. Williams’ publicist saying the family is grieving and is asking for privacy during this very difficult time.

The top of the screen shows a big, hyperlinked banner that says, “Watch live: Aerials of Robin Williams’ home.”

ABC News apologized Tuesday morning in a statement. “When we realized there was no news value to the live stream, we took it down immediately. Our intention was not to be insensitive to his family, friends and fans, and for that we apologize.”

Me, I would have avoided the aerials altogether.

Rest in peace, Mr. Williams.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @JasonAkst).

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