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.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Lost to Suicide

Robin Williams died on August 11th, 2014 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. They took the blame off those who kill themselves, and removed the guilt from family and friends who felt there was something more 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, his failed use of drugs and alcohol to combat them, and how hard he fought, will encourage others to talk about their demons rather than try to go it alone. Estelle Getty, actor, and Casey Kasem, radio host, also suffered with this type of dementia.

The phrase we often hear is “he committed suicide.” This has the tone of 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 like cancer, and that we need the help of others to fight it. The stigma of mental illness, the shame, is that we won’t talk about it. Too often we blame.

Much is lost when someone dies. Williams was 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. And those of us who knew him only in his movies and on TV, feel lost without his humor and sharp insights into humanity’s odd and sometimes destructive behaviors. 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.

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 anguish or unhappy childhoods. Making people laugh is a way of controlling their anxiety and fears, but they struggle with depression because of the constant pressure to find the next great joke. Many do not have happy lives when they’re not performing.

Comedians often work by themselves late at night exploring the cracks in society where grand promises do not meet stark reality. To create something new, they have to reach into the darkness and bring back a cup of light. Sometimes they look in for too long. Maybe on that fateful night, while staring over the dark ocean in front of him, unable to see the lights of love behind him, and unable to calm the voices, Williams simply thought, “enough is enough,” and the emptiness slipped in like the tide and lured him away.

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

Artists whose work focuses on the hard edges of society where people have been battered by sexual abuse, poverty, war or chronic disabilities, have also lost 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 the 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 can 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 to get through each day. 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 that at times spiraled out of control.

My mother had Alzheimer’s dementia. Each month we lost more of her as her memories and personality dissolved. She withdrew, and there was nothing we could do to stop the disease’s progression. She died in June.

One of the characters Williams 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 two years before. His character says that he would not trade any of the days he had with her, not the funny and good times, or the days sitting with her as she lay dying, holding her hand. He understands. No matter how wrenching it is, or what it costs us, we do not want to let go of those we love, because being without them is worse.

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 on the edge, treat themselves with kindness today.

            (This essay also appeared on the Huffington Post.)


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If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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