Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday, I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Lost to Suicide

Robin Williams died a year ago today from suicide.

He was dealing with Lewy body dementia that progresses quickly and is marked by depression, anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. His death brought light to a difficult subject, and the discussions I heard afterward spoke of the mental illness aspect of suicide, taking the blame off those who died. It also removed the guilt from family and friends who felt there was something they could have done the night before that would have saved them.

Because he was famous, I hope that Williams’ willingness to talk about his psychological struggles, as well as his failed use of drugs and alcohol to combat them, will encourage others to seek help in dealing with their demons rather than try to go it alone. Estelle Getty, actor, and Casey Kasem, radio host, also suffered with this type of dementia.

What was different to me about Williams was that he seemed approachable. In spite of his success, he was humble, and I have the feeling that if we had met, we would have sat down and had a good talk, not about comedy, but about each other’s day.

The phrase we often hear is “he committed suicide.” This is like saying “he committed murder,” that he took a life. I prefer what one of my friends said — “lost to suicide.” This speaks of dealing with something out of our control, like cancer, and we need the help of others as we battle it.

Much is lost when someone dies. Williams got lost in the swirling of thoughts and images he couldn’t control. His family lost him to death, and has felt lost without him in their lives. The world lost someone it needed, because he spoke honestly. And those of us who knew him only in his movies and on TV, feel lost without his humor and insights into the odd behaviors of humanity that we witness every day. When our pain became too crusty with doubts, too heavy with the expectations of others, he helped us step back, take a deep breath, and laugh at life’s absurdities.

Behind the laughter of many of the comedians we love, there are tears. Their brilliance in being able to make us laugh is often rooted in their anguish. Too many of them do not have happy lives when they’re not performing. They struggle with depression because they know the edges of existence where life is chaotic and raw. They see the cracks in society where promises do not meet reality.

Many comedians work by themselves late at night. They break life down into pieces. To create something new, they have to reach into the darkness and bring a cup of it back. Sometimes they look in too long. Maybe on that fateful night, Williams simply thought, “enough is enough,” and while staring over the dark ocean in front of him, unable to see the lights of love behind him, the emptiness slipped in like the tide and lured him away.

Other comedians have killed themselves, like Charles Rocket and Drake Sather, who were both on Saturday Night Live, Freddy Prinze Sr., Richard Jeni, and Ray Combs. Some have attempted suicide and failed, like Stephen Fry. Other comedians die trying to combat depression with alcohol and drugs and drift without an anchor, like Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Peter Sellers.

Artists whose work deals with death, torture, sexual abuse, and chronic depression have also killed themselves — Diane Arbus, photographer; Iris Chang, journalist; Simone Battle and Kurt Cobain, musicians; Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace, writers; Sylvia Plath, Alejandra Pizarnik, Anne Sexton, Marina Tsvetaeva, poets; Sarah Kane, playwright; Jean Seberg and Spalding Gray, actors; and Vincent van Gogh, painter. The list is long and sobering.

It doesn’t matter whether the cause of despair is psychological, physical, or a combination of the two that extinguishes hope of anything getting better. What matters is that people listen when you say you’re troubled. We may not find a long-term solution, but we might be able to help you get through today.

Like many others, I admired the improv zaniness of Williams, his ability to cut through the illusions that many of us use to prop ourselves up and show the somber reality. I don’t know how many of the personalities he pulled into his comedy in the blink of an eye were voices he battled in his head, voices he was able to calm only through drugs and alcohol, addictions that at times spiraled out of control.

One of the characters he played that I value the most is Sean Maguire, the psychology professor and therapist in Good Will Hunting. In the movie he speaks of missing his wife who died of cancer. His character says that he would not trade any of the days he had with her, not the funny and good times, or sitting with her as she lay dying, holding her hand. He understands.

The character he played that I value the most is Sean Maguire, the psychology professor and therapist in Good Will Hunting. In the movie he speaks of missing his wife who died of cancer. His character says that he would not trade any of the days he had with her, not the funny and good times, or sitting with her as she lay dying, holding her hand. He understands.

This is what I felt when my wife died in her 40s, a death that also did not make sense because it was a heart problem we didn’t know about. We do not want to let go, no matter how wrenching it is or what it costs us, because being without someone we love is worse. Two years later Maguire was still trying to let go.

Keep Robin’s family in your thoughts and prayers as they observe the anniversary of his death. Keep in mind, too, everyone who struggles with demons. Do not condemn them. Listen.


May all who live close to the edge, treat themselves with kindness today.

            *

One book I read this year is Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide. It tells of her struggle to understand her sister’s suicide. It has helped me understand.

3 comments:

  1. "We do not want to let go, no matter how wrenching it is or what it costs us, because being without someone we love is worseWe do not want to let go, no matter how wrenching it is or what it costs us, because being without someone we love is worse."
    This statement is the highest truth that has and will forever resonate within me. Such beautiful words to honor such wonderful people we've lost. Thank you for these words, Mark.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We remember, honor, cherish them, now and for the rest of our days. Their love for us, Amanda, has shaped who we have become.

      Delete
  2. Thank you for this reminder. Well done you.

    ReplyDelete