Cybermourning Frames and Collective Memory:
Remembering Comedian Robin Williams on

Kenneth Campbell, Ph.D. (bios)
Associate Professor
University of South Carolina

Kim Smith, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University


Cyberspace, which has a plethora of online memorials and obituary sites with guest books such as, has become an open forum for public expression of grief, commonly called cybermourning. Our framing analysis of 1,114 condolences that were posted on immediately following the announcement of the tragic suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams on August 11, 2014 reveals fans negotiating the healing process through cybermourning. Three themes emerged from the cyber condolences -- loss, appreciation, and a new beginning. Analysis of the themes revealed three frames -- relationship, redemption, and release--used by cybermourners to make sense of and give meaning to Williams’ death.  The themes and frames in this first research project on supports previous research findings that cybermourning has become a new avenue to facilitate the grieving and healing process. They also suggest a bottoms-up approach to collective memory that incorporates memories of ordinary individuals, which would be different than the top-down approach filtered through journalists whose obituaries and news stories about a celebrity’s death have helped guide collective memory.

Keywords: Cybermourning, collective memory, framing, textual analysis, Robin Williams,

Cybermourning Frames and Collective Memory:
Remembering Comedian Robin Williams on

As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin's death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions." Susan Schneider, Robin Williams’ wife, in press statement (Associated Press, n.d.).


Robin Williams was a world-famous comedian and an Oscar-winning actor, loved for his improvisational comic style and the ability to play serious roles (Puente, 2014).[1] Following his death on August 11, 2014, the airwaves and social media were saturated with coverage and conversation about his illustrious career but also his drug addiction, bouts with depression, and his suicide by hanging (Perlroth, 2014). It was also reported that he was suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s, an incurable degenerative disease that affects the nervous system and muscular functions (Parkinson’s Disease Causes, 2014). The news media have long been the bearer of sad news and a forum for conveying and constructing public grief (Kitch and Hume, 2008) when leaders and celebrities die tragically. Who can forget the deaths and televised funerals of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom were assassinated, or more recently the deaths of Princess Diana or pop star Michael Jackson (Brown, Basil and Bocarnea, 2003; Castro, 2010)? In the tradition of the role that news media have played in “death, dying, mourning and memorial culture” (Gibson and Altena, 2014, p. 15), cyberspace has become a new and significant forum for the expression of grief (Brennan, 2008; Hanusch, 2010; Brubaker and Hayes, 2011) -- a potential “virtual” Wailing Wall (Nager and de Vries, 2004, p. 44) in “the digitalisation of death culture(s)” (Haverinen, 2014, p.5), whether the deceased is an ordinary person or a celebrity. Williams’ death immediately became a trending topic on social media, including the online obituary site, where obituaries are posted and condolences and tributes are expressed in guest books. Using, we examined online condolences posted on the site to identify themes and frames that cybermourners used to make sense of the death by suicide of Williams, and what the themes and frames reveal about the online public grieving process. Legacy has more than 24 million unique visitors each month and is affiliated with more than 1,500 online and print newspapers worldwide (About, 2014). We selected Legacy because: (1) we were unable to find previous scholarship that focused on its apparently huge (at least by the numbers) but largely unexplored role in the growing cultural practice of grieving via the online environment; and (2) the site provided a rich medium for the study of cybermourning from a group of cybermourners grieving in real time over the death of Williams, a celebrity that they loved dearly.

Visit Williams’ celebrity page on where the researchers obtained the online condolences: Nine months after his death, people were still posting to the site permanently dedicated to him.

We further address whether the frames suggest how his suicide will influence society’s collective memory of him, especially because of the outpouring of sympathy from ordinary people. Typically, collective memory has been informed by news and views provided through mass media, largely by journalists (Zelizer, 1998; Edy, 1999). Thus, this research pulls strands from four areas of research literature: grief and mourning; celebrity and parasocial interaction; framing; and collective memory.

Mourning, Cybermourning and Celebrity

Mourning is an extreme form of emotional grief associated with the death of a loved one (Castle and Phillips, 2003).The act of mourning serves to repair damage to the social fabric caused by death (Hertz, 1960, as cited in Berta, n.d.). It is one of many types of rituals that have been used by humans for more than 100,000 years (Hayden, 1987). The ritual helps reunite the surviving members of the group and serves as a transitional healing period (Gennep,1960). In times of national mourning, such as during 911, the media play a crucial role by promoting “a sense of social collectivism that legitimizes the existing social order and affirms common sacred values” (Pantti & Sumiala, 2009, p. 121).  How different cultures mourn is as varied as fingerprints.

In Western culture, mourning is seen as a means of separation from the deceased so that the living can recover and continue to live their lives. In Eastern culture, mourning is viewed as means of maintaining connection, where imaginary conversations with the deceased continue and altars are built in homes in dedication to family ancestors (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen and Stroebe, 1992). “Offering food at the altar of a loved one would be classified as pathological by most Westerners, who would fear that the bereaved was fixated in the grief process and had failed to relinquish the tie to the deceased. However, in the Japanese case, such practices are fully normal” (Stroebe, Gergen, Gergen and Stroebe, 1992, p. 1207).

Initially in Western culture, due to geographical isolation, mourning as a cultural practice took place in the private sphere of family, friends, and local community. It allowed family members and friends to physically, psychologically, and emotionally separate themselves from the deceased and experience a period of healing so they could move forward with their lives (de Vries and Rutherford, 2004; Walter, Hourizi, Moncur and Pitsillides, 2011). With the growth of mass media, particularly newspapers, and the regular reporting of death, mourning became more public in the sense that word of a death was spread more quickly and broadly and more people therefore responded to it. Now, through interactive website profiles of deceased individuals, memorials, and online groups and therapy (Chapple and Ziebland, 2011), cybermourning is a key part of what has been described as “the return of death to the public sphere” (Sumiala and Hakola, 2013, p.3). Mourners are able to share their grief and sorrow and be comforted online through counseling and by others who grieve with them. Some web memorials -- like -- are generally accessible 24 hours a day without a password and provide space for a visitor to leave a comment.

The earliest reference to cybermourning was found in a 1996 news story about the Off-Broadway play “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral.” Computer users could log into the play, download pictures and chat with cast members who played the role of mourners (Weston, 1996). Some funeral homes used webcast software so that cybermourners from remote locations could watch the service (Bambuck, 2007). Memorials on the web, referred to as cybermemorials, such as a web page(s) devoted to a deceased person, virtual cemeteries, and shrines to help grieving individuals, began to appear in the 1990s (Roberts 2004; Roberts and Vidal 2000). The development of Web 2.0 in 2003 led to an explosion in cybermourning (Walter, Hourizi, Moncur and Pitsillides, 2011) because the new interactive web, characterized by YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and later, allows creators of memorials and people who are grieving to engage with each other online often in “real time” (Cormode and Krishnamurthy, 2008).

Cybermourning has become a significant part of the grieving process for many, sometimes in addition to the traditional cultural practices and sometimes in lieu of them (Lagerkvist, 2013). Cybermourning, such as visiting online memorials, provides space for the public expression of grief previously expressed privately or withheld altogether (Carroll and Landry, 2010). Sharing grief is also facilitated by online memorials because geographical distance no longer matters (Roberts, 2004; Carroll and Landry, 2010; Cristobal, 2007). A community of mourners develops in which they find support among each other. Cybermourners, those who create online memorials as well as those who visit the sites, seek to maintain a continuing bond with the deceased rather than separating themselves; in effect, they seek to keep the deceased alive (Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, 1996; Roberts, 2004; Mitchell, Stephenson, Cadell, and Macdonald, 2012). One popular example is that cybermourners write to the deceased as if they are still living (De Groot, 2012; Roberts, 2004; Brubaker and Hayes, 2011; Lagerkvist, 2013). All are efforts to make sense of the loss and come to grips with it. Lagerkvist (2013) notes, “What is pivotal here is that the relationship does not end: it is simply transformed” (p. 17). All in all, cybermourning may have therapeutic benefits by facilitating the grieving process (Roberts and Vidal 2000; Roberts 2004), not bringing it to an end but providing space for it to occur and be shared.

When the deceased is a beloved celebrity and when death is by the celebrity’s own hands, additional concerns enter the mourning process as a mourner tries to make sense of death. Chief among those concerns is the celebrity’s place in the life of the mourner, which can be distant, close, or somewhere in between. Horton and Wohl (1956) would have described fans of vastly popular celebrities like Williams as developing a one-way parasocial relationship, in which fans feel an intense sense of intimacy with the entertainer that is rarely reciprocated. It is as if the celebrity is a relative or personal friend (Giles, 2002). Parasocial relationships can be intense (Cohen, 2004; Eyal and Cohen, 2006) and that intensity can increase when a fan’s favorite celebrity dies (Bae, Brown and Kang, 2011; Radford and Bloch, 2012). Sanderson and Cheong (2010) refer to this type of mourning as “parasocially grieving --that is, mourning for the loss of a celebrity with whom they had parasocial interaction” (p. 328). The Internet and social media have contributed to the intensity of parasocial relationships by making celebrities more available through a variety of media that are available on the Internet 24 hours a day: TV programs, movies, celebrity-focused television programming and magazines, celebrity webpages and fan group websites, chat rooms, and easy access to virtually all aspects of the celebrities’ lives (McCutcheon, Maltby, Houran and Ashe, 2004; Radford and Bloch, 2012; Sanderson and Cheong, 2010). Fans exhibited intense reaction in online message board posts following the death of celebrity race car driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., but moved through the grief process much faster than they would in the traditional mourning process (Radford and Bloch, 2012). In response to Michael Jackson’s death, cybermourners were able to network and build community around others who had also developed a one-way parasocial relationship with Jackson. It allowed their grief to become a part of their everyday life (Sanderson and Cheong, 2010).

Collective Memory and Framing

Cybermourning creates sites of public and collective memory, whether they are recorded memories, expressions of emotion and connection, or communities of mourners. Because they are memories, they are representations of the past that give meaning to the present and possibly the future. “(T)he past, present and the future are connected through memory and commemoration and with the aid of media like ritual and text” such as obituaries and virtual memorials (Faro, 2014, p.74). Obituaries are “more abstract than mere facts” because they reflect values and are “a representation of an ideal, with its own distinct contribution to history” (Hume, 2000, p. 14). They are not only “useful scaffolding” for studying collective memory (Fowler and Bielsa (2007, p. 204), they are collective memory (Fowler, 2007; Hume 2000). By extension, so are condolences in online guest books accompanying obituaries, which can represent hundreds or thousands of individual memories that comprise or contribute to collective memory. Previous research shows that visitors who sign online guest books or visit online memorials can help “frame death stories” (Hume and Bressers, 2009, p. 265). The individual posts, primarily by ordinary individuals, have meaning and significance in the context of the broader posts. Halbwachs (1980), a pioneer of collective memory theory, contends that individual memory exists only in the context of group memory, therefore meaning in individual memory is shaped by the consciousness of the group.

Collective memory – be it factual or not – is how meaning is applied to what is remembered so it is useful to those doing the remembering. Mass media can play a big part in the development of collective memory because in many circumstances it creates the experience and narrative that are remembered, whether fulfilling the journalistic function of informing or the entertainment function of diversion (Zelizer, 1998; Edy, 1999). Online obituaries, as a public space for grieving and by virtue of being a part of the journalistic function, contribute to development of collective memory; similarly, cybermemorials as a public space for grieving also contribute to collective memory. More broadly, Lagerkvist(2013) notes that “traumatic and transformative events that become milestones for the collective memory of a national community, often involve loss of life” (p.13). Although she was referring to a society’s collective memory, we contend that collective memory of a celebrity, such as that of Williams, can be seen from the same perspective, particularly when it involves the tragic circumstances of his death. With the understanding that collective memory is constructed (Hoskins (2009), not retrieved from a reservoir of memories, it suggests a significant role for cybermemorials and online condolences in the development of collective memory. "(W)hen fans mourn dead celebrities, they are symbolically negotiating authenticity, ownership, memory, and identity, all within the institutional processes of mass mediation" (Jones and Jensen, 2005, p. xvi).

As sites of collective memory, cybermourning is characterized by what Giaxoglou (2014) describes in her “socio-discursive” analysis of Facebook memorial posts as “framing devices” that establish an “intertextual relationship with prior texts” (p. 11, 14). As noted, collective memory is not formed in a vacuum – and neither are frames. Collective memory is formed in the context of other memories, group memory, and experience, which are structured by frames. Mass communications framing theory explains that all media content, including cybermemorials, is embedded with powerful frames (Carragee and Roefs, 2004). Essentially, frames are created through the process of including, excluding, and presenting information in a way that guides how people make sense of an experience.[2]

Frames are considered powerful because they work at the subconscious level (Carragee and Roefs, 2004), steering the thought processes in specific directions. Framing theory recognizes that there can be different sources of frames, which determines who has the power in the communication process. First, in some cases frames are provided to the media by entities seeking to get their message out with a certain meaning or spin. This is typically considered agenda-building, where a source is guiding what the media might say (Berkowitz, 1992). Second, when the media choose and disseminate information, the process is considered to be agenda-setting, commonly referred to as the media telling the public what to think about. Agenda-setting suggests that the media, rather than people or organizations the media rely on for information, are determining what is important (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Third, when salience is given to certain frames that suggest how to make sense of information or an experience, it is considered framing. The media always impose frames on its content, whether intentional or not, and individuals can impose frames on media content they receive. Frames are always being negotiated, and the ultimate frames may not be any specific frame put forth, but rather negotiated frames (Campbell and Wiggins, 2014; Druckman, 2001; Tucker-McLaughlin and Campbell, 2013). These concepts are important in cybermourning because they suggest online condolences and memorials contain frames, the media might or might not choose the same frames, and people (including loved ones) might impose their own frames on memorials as well as media content. The power of frames is also in the cultural connection they make with the audience Druckman, 2001); this further suggests a significant role for ordinary individuals in the development of collective memory.

The literature suggests it would be valuable to investigate the following research questions:

RQ1. What themes are reflected in the cybermourners’ posts on as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?

RQ2. What frames are embedded in the cybermourners’ posts on as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?

RQ3. What roles did celebrity, parasocial interaction, and suicide play, if any, in the development of the themes and frames, and implications for collective memory?

RQ4. What do the themes and frames reveal about the online public grieving process?

RQ5. What are the implications for collective memory?

What is, based in Evanston, Ill., was founded in 1998 and calls itself “the leader in the online memorial and obituary market,” serving more than 1,500 online and print newspapers worldwide. Newspapers pay a fee for the site to be the host of their obituaries and accompanying guest books. The site gets more than 24 million unique visitors each month, “making it one of the 50 most visited websites in the U.S.” (About, 2014, para. 2). provides a number of options for the public to mourn virtually. The public has access to obituaries and the option to post comments on their guest books, which stay up for a set number of days. For a fee, memorial sites—including guest books--can be constructed allowing for a permanent record of the deceased and his or her guest book (Celebrate a Legacy, n.d.). For celebrities, special memorial sites are built, allowing for people to read obituaries or to comment on their guest books. For people needing help with coming to grips with the death of a loved one or a celebrity, Legacy -- as well as other cybermemorial sites -- has a number of cybermourning support groups on its site to help mourners.


For our study, we consider to be a memorial site. We compiled and analyzed the condolences posted on during what might be considered the “golden hour(s)" immediately following the announcement of Williams’ death, when reaction was perhaps most sensitive. The golden hour is a concept from the field of emergency medicine based on the idea that a person who receives medical treatment within 60 minutes of a traumatic accident is likely to survive (Lerner and Moscati, 2001). This research captures the first 900 posts from 7:30 p.m. to 11:59 p.m., the first four-and-one-half hours after his death was announced. Additionally, the last 214 posts leading up to September 11, 2014, one month after his death, were also compiled and analyzed to see if the nature of the condolences had changed. They had not, although the pace of postings was slower. Therefore, a saturation point was reached as evidenced by the redundant responses by the end of the first period and in the second period (Glaser and Strauss, 1967).As of Sept. 11, 2014, there were 3,950 total condolences posted.

Using textual analysis, we identified the themes and frames in the condolences. We treat themes and frames as distinct concepts, with themes being a step toward determining frames. Themes are general ideas while frames are specific ways of thinking, typically represented in a pattern of thought (Campbell and Wiggins, 2014). To identify themes, one author read the condolences and answered the question, “What is going on here?” (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Key words and phrases were selected by the author to help answer the question. Similar answers were combined and identified as the themes. To identify frames, the other author analyzed the themes for patterns of thought to answer the question, “How do the condolences want you to think about the themes”? The salient patterns in the themes were determined to be the frames. Each theme and frame is an aggregate expressed across condolences rather than a theme and frame identified in each individual condolence. This approach, adapted from Campbell and Wiggins (2014), worked particularly well because of the two-to-three sentence brevity and multiple thoughts of most condolences. 


RQ1. What themes are reflected in the cybermourners’ posts on as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?

Robin Williams’ death clearly moved, indeed shook, many of his fans emotionally and they sought to publicly express their grief in his obituary guest book. We have assembled a multimedia presentation of some of the 1,114 comments posted on before midnight on the night Robin Williams died. They represent the themes and frames that emerged from our study of cybermourners and provide insight into the tremendous grief shared among his fans that evening over the social media platform. Visit this link at

It is not clear how the cybermourners knew of the guest book. There might have been a link to the full obituary and guest book connected to the news story or online post they read. The general topic of the condolences was remembrance, which is typically the topic of obituaries and comments at wakes, memorials, and funerals. As one of the thousands of online memorial sites that have changed the nature of grieving in society, allowed people close and distant, ordinary and famous, private and public to remember and grieve together. Their cybermourning may contribute to the collective memory of Williams that began to take shape in themes and frames in their condolences. Three themes emerged during the analysis of the condolences: loss; appreciation; and a new beginning. These themes, which answer RQ1, were consistent with grief literature that addresses how people deal with the loss of a loved one (Klass, Silverman, and Nickman, 1996; Kubler-Ross and Kessler, 2005; Mitchell, Stephenson, Cadell, and Macdonald, 2012; Nager and de Vries, 2004).

Theme 1: Loss

Cybermourners wanted the emotional impact of their sorrow and the absence in their life to be felt and shared. “This saddens me beyond words,” wrote a California woman. “You were a light to so many people.” Even though Williams was a celebrity that most of the cybermourners had never met, they nevertheless expressed deep emotional loss, the kind experienced when a family member or friend dies. For them, he was not the detached performer who entertains for a while and leaves; he was family. “…(I)t was like losing a close member of my family,” one cybermourner from New Zealand wrote while one from Connecticut noted, “I feel as if I have lost one of my parents all over again.” As is often the case in online memorials, many wrote directly to him, as if talking to him. Said one from California, “Robin, I along with so many millions of others feel like I have lost a close, personal friend on August 11th.” A man from Texas, wrote, “Although you didn’t know me, I’ve known you all of my life. I grew up with you. I laughed with you. I cried with you.” Another California resident wrote poetically, “You were such a larger part of my childhood. Another face I could look back on that felt like home. You were a walking memory that always lit up the darkness. Thank you. Thank you.”

Some felt a closeness and greater loss because they met him, if only once or casually. The impression was lasting, giving them a connection to a celebrity who also happened to be an ordinary person. Their sense of loss was magnified because on the occasion of the chance meeting he made them feel like they mattered. “A self-described alcoholic from California posted this message directly addressing the comedian:

Robin. You came to our AA meeting and didn’t leave until everybody in the room had a chance to meet you, shake your hand, give you a hug, and thank you for being so generous and forthcoming about your experience, strength and hope. I’m gutted at the moment.

Another California cybermourner also expressed her sense of loss by recalling a personal experience with him and addressing him directly. She wrote,

I had the sincere pleasure to share my 40th and 50th birthday celebrations in your presence. I thank you for sharing the ice skating rink with my friends on my birthday. For all the times you stopped and said hello, for cracking a joke or two at a restaurant here in SF (San Francisco), never too busy to share your time. For the hugs, for the smiles, for the laughs, and for all the intelligent stories you so often shared. My heart goes out to you, to your family, and to all of those whose lives you so positively and gently touched, including my own.

Sometimes his personal touch was spontaneous and other times it was planned; the effect was the same, he made people feel valued and he entertained them in the process.

A former employee at the San Francisco International Airport's executive terminal recalled his generosity.

…(O)ur crew loved it when Mr. Williams would arrive in his aircraft. He was "hands down" the favorite celebrity we would interact with being that he was so friendly and kind. Each year during the winter holidays, he would send over honey baked hams for every single employee to take home to his or her family. A wonderful artist and talent, and most importantly, a wonderful human being.

Many cybermourners suggested the sense of loss was not just personal. It was much bigger; he belonged to the world. One man posted this comment: “Such tragic news. He truly was beloved. …We have lost one of the greatest comedic minds of our lifetime.” Another wrote, “The world is richer for having you with us and yet poorer for seeing you leave.” And yet another, from Michigan, said, “The world lost a very precious gift by the name of Robin Williams!!”

While loss -- and emptiness and sorrow that accompany it -- was a theme we expected to emerge, we were surprised by the depth of grief.

Theme 2:  Appreciation

The second theme, appreciation, was twofold. Cybermourners expressed appreciation to Williams (a) for laughter he inspired – sometimes when they were in difficult circumstances, and (b) for bringing awareness to depression and suicide – some confessing they shared what they referred to as his darker side. “Laugh,” or some variation of the word, was used more than 400 times, typically noting appreciation for Williams’ uncanny ability to make people laugh. A simple “thank you” for “the laughs” or “the laughter” was a common expression of appreciation. And not just laughter, but high-spirited laughter: “He taught me how to laugh uncontrollably and to hug endlessly,” said one cybermourner from Louisiana. And reaffirming laughter: “Robin, you filled so many lives with laughter, blessed, healing laughter,” another said. And extracted laughter: “Robin, you always made me laugh. That is not an easy thing to do.”

The feeling of having a closeness, or personal connection, with Williams, also prevailed in expressions of appreciation for him, just as it did in expressions of loss. “I have many joy soaked memories of sitting next to my Dad while he was in tears from laughter watching Robin just go for it,” recalled the man from California. Said another, from Louisiana: “He was a part of my childhood and most of my adulthood, and could always make me laugh till I was in tears.” Another wrote, “You made me laugh so hard my stomach hurt. But it was the best kind of hurt.” A San Francisco cybermourner recalled a similar episode from 35 years earlier at a gas station:

It was an early Sunday morning and my co-worker I were hungover. You stepped out of your Ford Ranchero wearing a t-shirt that said "I'm the real Robin Williams." We said "yeah, right.” You then went into a routine that made my stomach hurt! Thank you and rest in peace.

His impact was both personal and widespread; just as his death was considered a loss to the world, his talent for entertaining was appreciated as a gift to the world. In what sounds like overstatement, which tends to be found in condolences and tributes to the deceased, some cybermourners took note of his global significance in messages directly to him: “You changed the world and made it better,” said one. It was a common expression of appreciation; the assertion that his ability to make people laugh made the world better. “Thank you for making the world laugh,” said a New Yorker, while another cybermourner said “Thank you for your laughter and inspiration to this world.” Additionally, one stated, “…mostly I will never forget all the laughs you brought to the world.” Sharing a meaningful personal experience, one cybermourner stated:  “I saw Robin perform at Pier 39 as a kid. What was a wonderful memory for me was just another day for Robin - making the world a better place one smile at a time.”

Many cybermourners appreciated his humor for helping them escape from personal problems. They also often addressed him directly. “Thank you for giving me laughter at the times when I needed it the most,” one stated. Another told him, “You were a light to so many people. You could make people laugh in times of sorrow and brighten every one’s day.”  Another explained, “Robin, I hope you truly know just how much you are loved and admired and the happiness and laughter you brought people. You will forever be remembered for your warmth, your caring heart and the ability to make people laugh and forget their problems, if just for a little bit.” And some connected sentiments of laughter and a better world. A Rhode Island woman noted, “Robin Williams gave me the gift of laughter through his special talent. Laughter is one of the most important gifts one can offer as it provides us with a temporary escape from any hardships with which we may be faced, making this world a better place as it lifts our spirits.”

The greatest appreciation might have been expressed for Williams putting a face on depression and suicide, and his ability to generate laughter while struggling with his own inability to laugh. A number of cybermourners used the condolences to sadly acknowledge depression and suicide attempts in their family, including their own attempts. Some also painfully acknowledged successful suicides in their families. Addressing him, they credited Williams with helping them cope through laughter. “You saw me through childhood and adulthood and as I struggled with depression and anxiety, you gave me hope,” said a cybermourner. Another said, “Funny how God puts people in your life when you need them the most. I, too, have suffered from depression since I was a teenager, and each time I was at my lowest, God always managed to put you in front of me to make me laugh or to think.” Often, though, the story was not about survival, it was about understanding. A woman from Illinois wrote: “I also suffer from bi polar [sic] and have made 2 unsuccessful suicide attempts. I know the pain Robin felt. He just didn’t want to deal with the roller coaster ride.” A woman from California who also said she is bipolar wrote, “I know the depths of sadness we go through in depressions’ grasp. I lost my grandma and my mother has made several attempts at suicide.” Another woman from California wrote about losing her daughter to an apparent suicide two years ago and now, thanks to Williams, said she understands what her daughter sought. Writing to Williams’ family, she said: “God Bless You...He (Robin Williams) loved you all, but wanted peace. I lost my only child almost two years ago... And finally I understood what she was feeling. She loved us, but, peace was what she wanted.” Also writing to the family, a woman reflected on her son’s mental illness as she wrote about what Williams meant to her.

“My heart goes out to his beloved family,” the woman wrote. Addressing Williams’ family at this difficult moment, she continued:

No words can bring you comfort but know he brought so much laughter and joy to so many lives. I, too, lost a young man to suicide, it's been 8 years and I still miss him every day. I always wonder the what ifs. When I found this young man all I could think was his demons were gone. My thoughts and prayers are you, his family.

Another aspect of appreciation was the hope that Williams’ public acknowledgement of his depression and his suicide might help ease the stigma for people afraid to seek help. A woman from California who also suffered from severe mental illness commented: “Thank you for being so open about having severe depression because I have it, too. Maybe a few people learned enough not to say ‘just snap out of it.’” A woman from Wisconsin said to him: “I hope your death will bring depression to the forefront. I, too, suffer from life-long, black-hole sadness.”

Additionally, he was appreciated as a humanitarian. He was variously characterized as “a kind, caring,” “genuine,” “extraordinary,” “magnificent and brilliant” human being and a “great humanitarian.” Although the characterizations were not always explained, they appeared to refer to his charity work and support for different causes cited in some condolences. A California woman praised Williams for being among the first comedians to deal with the sensitive issue of AIDS.  She wrote: “I remember meeting Robin at an AIDS fundraiser, early years, when AIDS wouldn’t cross most politicians’ lips. Robin knew how to make that fundraiser successful and funny. I don’t remember the jokes but I do remember how I felt at the end—healed through laughter.” A man from California noted, “He did a lot for charity in this city too and was a great neighbor. Kids would line up at their place every Halloween.” Writing to the family, a cybermourner hoped, “he will never be forgotten as a man who made so many people laugh as well as helping children around the world have better lives with his charity and selflessness.” Also addressing his family, another wrote: “Privately he gave so much of himself to so many charity works. He made this world better.” And writing directly to him, a cybermourner wrote: “Thanks for all your support to the troops, to the all the charity work. It was not done in vain.”

Theme 3: A New Beginning

Cybermourners frequently described Williams’ death as representing a new start because he was free from the pain and suffering of drug addiction and depression. His death was characterized as “a new journey,” “peace from struggle,” “end of struggle with addiction/depression,” and “a better afterlife,” among others. Cybermourners writing directly to him were saddened that he could not hear the laughter he gave the world – and use it to save him from what many referred to as his “demons.” A woman from Connecticut wrote to him: “I'm so sorry you couldn't "hear" your own laugh for laughter is the best medicine. … Make them all laugh in heaven!” From North Carolina, a woman apparently referring to her own struggle with depression, wrote: “I, too, know the inner pain & demons that haunted you. I hope your Soul is at rest now & you find the happiness that you so longed for....FLY FREE SWEET SPIRIT.”

Cybermourners exhorted him to share his humor in his new home, often referring to heaven. Writing to Williams, the family, and the public, they offered consolation that his legacy of laughter was significant and Williams was finally at peace, perhaps even entertaining a new audience including angels, like himself, and the hosts of heaven. “Heaven is getting a great angel,” said a woman from Florida, while another said “Heaven will be a happier place with Robin as one of Gods angels.” An Arizona cybermourner wrote, “Be at peace now and make the heavens smile” while one in California similarly noted, “You are at peace now and now Heaven gets to enjoy your talent.”

Numerous cybermourners indirectly or directly made religious, particularly Christian, references. A man from California wrote: “May the comfort and peace that rests in the arms of a merciful God be yours. Jesus understood Robin and fought with him in his struggles. In His mercy, I pray that Robin now rests in the eternal peace He has won for him.” Another from California noted, “God bless. May the angels in Heaven enjoy your bright smile and sense of humor like I did.” Upbeat condolences tended to encourage Williams, as this California woman did: “May you keep everyone laughing & happy in Heaven as you have made us here on Earth. God Bless You.” Others encouraged: “Bring that laughter to Heaven with you” and “Keep them laughing in heaven, Robin.”

RQ2. What frames are embedded in the cybermourners’ posts on as they begin to publicly grieve Robin Williams’ death?

We identified frames in the condolences by addressing ways of thinking about loss, appreciation, and a new beginning that were suggested in the online condolences. The ways of thinking, or frames, indicate a subconscious as well as conscious pattern of thought in the condolences that are a part of the grieving process and that can be embedded in the collective memory of Robin Williams that develops over the years. Frames of cybermourners may go beyond the general and selective reporting of journalists to include the whole of the community of mourners who were responding in this relatively new world of cybermourning.

Three frames were identified: relationship; redemption; and release. In each of the frames, the cybermourners expressed a level of emotion and bonding that is generally found in significant personal relationships. Cybermourners clearly developed a virtual parasocial relationship with Williams. He was not just a comedian and an actor; he was a friend or member of the family, which increased his significance and strengthened the bond. As a frame, relationship separates Williams from other popular comedians who may be popular and funny but not important beyond that. Being in a virtual parasocial relationship with Williams affects how one appreciates or understands him as well as how his self-inflicted death is internalized.

The second frame was redemption. Above all, cybermourners sought to redeem Williams in light of the tragic circumstances of his death. His suicide and drug addiction were explained as a consequence of his depression, which one cybermourner described as an “ugly black hole” and several described as “demons” that got the best of him. In other words, the suicide was not committed by the ordinary person in the Robin Williams some of them met, or the humanitarian, actor and, most of all, zany comedian known and loved worldwide. The suicide was committed by the demons – out of his control. For other cybermourners, that Williams chose to take his own life was noble because the act by such a high-profile celebrity could bring much-needed attention to depression and suicide. The third frame was release, which was present in all of the themes but perhaps most prevalent in the theme of a new beginning. Because of the close relationship and the nature of the death, it was challenging for cybermourners to accept his death. All five stages of Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s (2005) stages of grief are evident in the condolences taken as a whole: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Even though the condolences were posted within hours of his death, they reflected multiple stages of the grief model, especially denial, depression, and acceptance. Such strong reaction may provide further evidence of the strength of the parasocial relationship. To accept his death, they chose the frame of releasing Williams from his earthly suffering and demons to a world without those evils, where he could continue to do what he did best – make them laugh. In doing so, cybermourners forever would remember him as the beloved comedian. In a way, they were releasing him but also holding onto him at the same time, having the comfort of knowing that he was still performing but not suffering.


Research Questions 3, 4 and 5 are addressed in the discussion.

RQ3. What roles did celebrity, parasocial interaction, and suicide play, if any, in the development of the themes and frames?

Robin Williams seemed to transcend the label of celebrity for so many cybermourners and was seen as a regular guy who happened to be hilariously funny. He comforted people, he inspired people, and he made them feel like he was their friend. In the one-way relationship, he could talk to them through his humor. Many were so comfortable with him, they called him by his first name. They and others made comments that indicated a parasocial relationship, and an emotional connection that might be as strong as a real-life relationship. Because of the closeness they felt in the relationship, they framed his death not in terms of the suicide but in terms of something out of his control or as an act of nobility. We acknowledge that negative comments about suicide might have been withheld from the website. Editors at Legacy filter comments that are insensitive, might reveal a dark family secret, berate the dead or are otherwise unflattering (Urbina, 2006).

RQ4. What do the themes and frames reveal about how the online public grieving process?

The cybermourners’ public construction of grief took the same path as that of traditional mourners – they highlighted the good and interpreted what might have been seen as bad as being good. That is the approach generally taken at memorial services and in recollections of the deceased, especially immediately after their death. However, in moving the practice of mourning to the Internet, cybermourners also renegotiated it. Rather than putting the deceased out of their lives, they established an ongoing relationship that amounted to keeping the person alive. They engaged other mourners through memorial posts and by participating in chat rooms and support groups. In effect, they maintained a relationship with the deceased and the living.

RQ5. What are the implications for collective memory?

The implications of the frames for collective memory begin with the idea that collective memory can develop through a bottoms-up approach in which ordinary people – in this case, fans of a celebrity -- can have a say in its development. The frames also suggest a collective memory of Williams in the guest book condolences. As Harju (2015) has noted, collective memory is in memorials. Celebrities, with the help of the media, tend to be put in one-dimensional boxes. They are remembered according to a narrative set out by the media, whether it is based on one-line portrayals in a movie (Humphrey Bogart), one act in a social movement (Rosa Parks), or a tragic life experience (Challenger Space Shuttle astronauts). The Robin Williams’ condolences suggest that the public can accept a much broader collective memory, and indeed, can contribute to it. The condolences show that it is not the sensationalism that the press might associate with a celebrity’s unfortunate circumstances or death that should be central in the collective memory, but rather what should be remembered is what made the person famous. For Williams, that was the remembrances of the laughter he generated, and secondarily his humanitarianism and ordinariness.

Cybermourning in open forums such as can provide a wealth of public contributions to collective memory, expanding the variety of experiences that become the memory. As evidenced by this research, frames from the experiences that shape the memory do not have to be limited to the experiences of persons selected by journalists or other memory creators, but they can also arise from public forums such as guest books on and other online memorials. Edy (1999) and Fowler (2005) suggest the media generally favor the collective memory of the affluent. However, it is likely that most of the more than 1,100 condolences in this study are from ordinary people who posted their own thoughts, not persons sought out by journalists who tend to use elite sources. Thus, this study demonstrates that as provided newspapers a forum to celebrate the life of Williams and memorialize him, it also provided a forum for ordinary people to display virtual acts of remembrance through which their collective memory of Williams was formed. It opens the door to a broader base for collective memory.

Frames are significant in this research because they identify the dimensions of the collective memory and where the power lies in the condolences to become collective memory. The emotional connection to Williams, which is borne out in the frames, essentially guides the shaping of the collective memory that emerges from the condolences. The cybermourners are collectively feeling, experiencing and speaking. The cybermourners expressed that they have collectively experienced Williams in life, and now they collectively experience the pain of losing him and choose to remember him in certain ways.


This study just begins to scratch the surface on how new technology has changed the dynamics when it comes to online collective memory and acts of remembrance. Future research should address whether cybermourners should be considered citizen journalists (Robinson, 2009) and whether their “story” differs from that reported by traditional journalists, which would possibly create a different foundation for collective memory. Also, future “cybermourning” research should address characteristics of cybermourners and connect that to their messages. Another issue worth future study are the parasocial relationships that surface among some cybermourners. Likewise, it is worth studying the many online condolences that filters out and does not allow the public to see.

A weaknesses of this study is that it is a convenience sample whose results cannot be generalized to a larger population of condolences; however, the 214 condolences at the end of the period indicates that results would not likely to change if the full population were used. The study provides readers with a glimpse into the thoughts of cybermourners who were using emerging media in “real time” to reflect on the death of Williams as they possibly contributed a collective memory of him.

About the Authors

Kenneth Campbell, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. His research focus includes media history and representation of African Americans in the media, using the theoretical approaches of collective memory, framing and cultivation analysis.

Kim Smith, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C. His research interests include the impact of emerging media on society, the portrayal of people of color in the media and multimedia journalism.


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[1] Williams appeared June, 10, 2001 on “Inside the Actors’ Studio.” Watch his interview with host James Lipton at

[2] For a thorough discussion of framing literature, see: Borah, Porismita. 2011. “Conceptual Issues in Framing Theory: A Systematic Examination of a Decade’s Literature.” Journal of Communication 61 (2): 246–263. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.

2011.01539.x and Matthes, Jörg. 2009. “What’s in a Frame? A Content Analysis of Media Framing Studies in the World’s Leading Communication Journals, 1990–2005.” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 86 (2): 349–367. doi:10.1177/107769900908600206.

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