When Robin Williams died in 2014, the world was shocked. It wasn’t just the fact that he was gone, but also the manner of his death: suicide. As more information came out about what had happened, the Williams children shared their grief. And while many years have now passed since Robin’s death, his family still have ways of keeping his memory with them.
Robin’s death was a consequence of a terrible medical condition. He had been told he had Parkinson’s disease, which of course was bad enough in itself. But in fact he was suffering from something else: Lewy body dementia. The incurable condition affected his brain so terribly that he seemingly thought he had no choice but to take his own life.
When the news broke about what had happened, the world reacted with horror. Flowers piled up at locations where Robin had filmed some of his most popular movies. People who’d worked with the actor posted testaments on Twitter about his comedic talents and how much he’d meant to them.
In fact, even the then President of the United States paid tribute to Robin. Barack Obama said, “He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams.”
But, of course, it was Robin’s family who felt the most pain following his death. His children Zak, Zelda and Cody all spoke in the days after his passing. “Yesterday, I lost my father and a best friend and the world got a little grayer,” said Zak. “I will carry his heart with me every day. I would ask those that loved him to remember him by being as gentle, kind and generous as he would be.”
Zelda, Robin’s only daughter, had a stark and saddening message. She wrote, “My family has always been private about our time spent together. It was our way of keeping one thing that was ours, with a man we shared with an entire world. But now that’s gone, and I feel stripped bare.”
“My last day with him was his birthday, and I will be forever grateful that my brothers and I got to spend that time alone with him, sharing gifts and laughter,” Zelda continued. “He was always warm, even in his darkest moments. While I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there’s minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions.”
“There are no words strong enough to describe the love and respect I have for my father,” Cody stated. “The world will never be the same without him. I will miss him and take him with me everywhere I go for the rest of my life, and will look forward, forever, to the moment when I get to see him again.”
In the years that followed, Robin’s family shared some personal details of the days before his death, in the hope that doing so would help others. For example, Robin’s widow Susan Schneider Williams released a piece titled “The terrorist inside my husband’s brain” to the American Academy of Neurology in September 2016.
In it Susan wrote, “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it. Can you imagine the pain he felt as he experienced himself disintegrating? And not from something he would ever know the name of, or understand? Neither he, nor anyone could stop it – no amount of intelligence or love could hold it back.”
Moreover, Susan’s experiences had taken her on to a new career path. “The journey Robin and I were on together has led me to knowing the American Academy of Neurology and other groups and doctors,” she wrote. “It has led me to discover the American Brain Foundation, where I now serve on the Board of Directors.”
And Susan wasn’t the only Williams family member who was inspired to do something to help others after losing Robin. Zak began working at a prison as a tutor, giving lessons about financial matters to the inmates. He spoke to Today about his work in August 2015, a year after his father’s death.
“I come from an entitled background where I could have not worked hard – just coasted for a chunk of my life, up to a point,” Zak said. “But I opted to take pride and joy in the work that I do and to establish accountability.” He added that Robin “would have loved the program and loved participating. We know he’s there in spirit.”
Zak also began working in the field of mental health. In October 2015 he spoke at the Evening of Hope, which is run by the not-for-profit Foundation of Hope. “Mental illness is not often openly discussed and so many people and their loved ones suffer in silence,” he said. “This needs to change.”
Zak spoke about how people were sometimes dissuaded from seeking mental health treatment because of the stigma surrounding it. And Zak also said that Robin, “despite his own anguish and struggles, endeavored to bring light and laughter where there was despair and pain. And it’s his inspiring attitude that fills me with pride every day.”
Then in 2019 Zak and his partner Olivia June became proud parents for the first time. And the couple had their son’s late grandfather in mind when it came to naming him. They called the child McLaurin Clement, with the former being Robin’s middle name. “Mickey” would be used as a nickname.
“My fiancé, Zak, and I were so happy to welcome baby McLaurin to the world on May 22nd,” Olivia wrote on Instagram. “We are beyond thrilled he chose us to be his parents, and obviously think he’s the best, smartest, and cutest baby ever!” She also referred to Zak as the “World’s Greatest Dad,” which had been the title of one of Robin’s movies.
Zelda also expressed her delight via Instagram. “News is finally out: I’m an auntie! Meet Mclaurin Clement Williams, aka Mickey, aka Dr. Baby!” she wrote. “He’s a squishably cute pterodactyl cooing tiny wonder and I love him so much already. Big shoutout to Mickey on being the fastest swimmer, and huge congrats to @heyoliviajune and my big bro @zakpym on creating this little joy (and poop) factory!”
Then, as the five-year anniversary of Robin’s death rolled around, Zak gave some more interviews about his dad and the life they had had together. In July 2019, for instance, he spoke to the TV show Good Morning Britain about both the joys and the difficulties of having a famous movie star as a father.
“When he was having challenges and going through certain things it was heartbreaking, because he still went out and wanted to share his feelings of laughter and humor with the world,” Zak said of his father. “And, while he was suffering and struggling, he still went out and performed. I admire him and loved him. Having to share him was hard.”
“Sharing the grieving process with the world was hard,” Zak added. “At times it was hard to differentiate what involved private grieving, and experiencing that loss, versus public grieving and experiencing that type of community interaction and communicating. I wasn’t prepared. It was challenging. But I’m very grateful for the outpouring of love and support that continued.”
In August 2019 Zak spoke of his own psychological wellbeing and how losing his dad had affected him. He’d started up his own mental health support organization at this point, RYM Health, and had thrown himself in to helping others. During a Facebook discussion with the community 18percent, he touched upon his struggles.
Zak said that after his father’s death, he’d ended up “self-medicating and generally unhappy.” He told his audience, “What I neglected to do after my dad’s passing was take care of myself. I was masking the pain with alcohol often and that just made things worse.” Thankfully, though, he’d been able to get out of that situation.
Robin’s son said that volunteering with inmates had been a “great help” to him. “[I] found that teaching financial literacy helped me cope with the trauma,” he explained. “After that, I found that being vulnerable and open about my struggles seemed to actually help others. So I just kind of kept doing it.”
Zak was asked what he’d learned from Robin. “That being unconditionally loving, kind and considerate is one of the secrets to leading a full life,” he replied. “That, and finding connection and common ground. Oh, also, finding gratitude in the day-to-day life is a simple, wonderful way to feel good.”
Parenthood, of course, presented a whole new set of issues for Zak. In May 2020 he spoke to People magazine about the subject. “To be a present and engaged parent requires focus and commitment to time and an effort that… it’s a lot,” he admitted. “But the rewards are unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”
Zak also talked about how his own mental health was going. “I stay away from drugs and alcohol, I commit to support groups,” he said. “One thing I found very healing for me through my experience has been service and commitment to service work, specifically around mental health and mental health support organizations.”
The interview took place not long before Father’s Day, which was obviously a difficult time for all the Williams children. Zak recalled when talking to People that there had been six such days without their father so far. He said, “I talked to my siblings to share stories and thoughts and photos that we like and appreciate.”
Zak stated that the next Father’s Day would be “an opportunity to be introspective” with his brother and sister. He added, “The key thing for us during this upcoming Father’s Day is just to take some quiet time to reflect as a family around all the things that we’re grateful for around him and who he was.”
And Zak also talked about the ways he was ensuring that Mickey would know his granddad. “His mom and I have certainly considered how we want to introduce my son’s grandfather, my dad, into his life,” he told People. “Certainly through his movies and the cartoons that he participated in is a great way. [Mickey] points at a cel that we have in his room of my dad that has the Genie from Aladdin.”
Aladdin’s the Genie is considered to be one of Robin’s most famous and beloved parts. His peers admired his performance, too: the Golden Globes created a new category just so the actor would be honored for his voice work. To kids who grew up with Aladdin, Robin and the Genie were inseparable from each other.
Indeed, after Robin’s death a quote from Aladdin was used frequently on social media as people expressed their sorrow. That line was: “Genie, you’re free.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was among the accounts that tweeted it out, alongside a shot from the movie of Aladdin hugging the Genie.
But some experts in mental health worried that this was sending the wrong message. For example, a piece in Psychology Today stated, “Maybe you can find the image reassuring and comforting but for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and impulses, this same image could trigger a vulnerable person to commit suicide by associating ‘freedom’ with the act.”
Zak and his wife were using Robin’s Aladdin performance in a different way. “He’s got a collection of photos and animation cels throughout our home that he sees on a daily basis,” Zak said of his baby son. “I think it’s being mindful and introducing the elements and stories about [Robin] slowly.”
“We hope that we can celebrate the positive elements and his works and films in a way that there can be appreciation and acknowledgment of him both as an entertainer, but also as a family man, and parent and grandfather to my son,” the new dad continued. “So, the key thing would be for us to introduce it slowly and meaningfully. Taking an opportunity to share stories and his values in a way that we hope can be appreciated and embodied.”
Robin himself had always spoken fondly of parenthood. In 1988 Rolling Stone asked him, “What has fatherhood taught you about yourself?” The actor answered, “That most of your actions have consequences with the child. And I’ve learned to have the security not to worry that he will love me – as long as I keep the connection strong enough.”
Zak had been the only Williams child at that point. “I’ve learned not to try to force the love. You can’t,” Robin added. “All you can do is try to set up a world for him that’s safe and stable enough to make him happy. I want to protect him and shield him from public sight. I want him to have his own life.”
Robin used to entertain the young Zak in ways that only he could have done. “Sometimes he’ll love it. I did a Señor Wences thing for him,” the actor told Rolling Stone. “I dressed my fist in a napkin and was Mother Teresa. I played her drunk and made her drink water, which I’d spill down my arm. He liked that.”
And once there were three children in the picture, Robin never stopped singing their praises. In a 2010 interview with the website Little White Lies to promote World’s Greatest Dad, he was asked “What’s the best thing about being Robin Williams?” He answered, “I’d have to say my kids. They’re amazing.”
“I’m so proud of them on all levels,” Robin added. “They make life worth living.” The interviewer then asked, “And what’s the worst thing?” The legendary comedian deadpanned, “Again, I’ll have to say my kids.” That’s hopefully the sort of humor Robin’s grandson will grow up knowing him for.