When I think of all of the things I want to say about suicide, I often feel as if my brain gets bunched up and I can’t really put my thoughts into words. But still, I feel as if I have to somehow address, not the death of Robin Williams itself, but rather the intense response it has garnered through both traditional and social media. I feel a need to address the effect this must be having on his loved ones and, in fact, on anyone who is a survivor of a loved one’s suicide. I feel a need to address the effect it is having on me.
I wrote about the media coverage of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death because I felt for his family and thought I understood, maybe a bit, what they might feel. Robin Williams’ death hits far closer to home for me. My father was 59 when he died, in the same time of life as Williams. My sister and I were in our early-to-mid twenties, as Williams’ children are now. And, of course, he died by suicide.
Unlike me, his loved ones have to hear the opinions of a myriad of people who did not even know him. They are getting hateful messages on Instagram and Twitter. Everyone, including me, is writing about his life and his death. Not only do people feel a need now to share their thoughts on suicide, but they feel the need to vehemently defend their stance. They, apparently, feel confident in facts and answers that I do not. For the survivors, both his and those of everyone who has died this way, it opens wounds. Each statement that “people who commit suicide are X,” or “people who commit suicide because Y,” is like a commentary on that person we lost. It causes us to retreat once again into hiding, not wanting those who will judge to know the truth.
Which brings me to my title. What can I say? What can I really say that makes any difference? I can tell you what I know. Death by suicide is painful for everyone it touches. It leaves questions that will never be answered. When you feel like you have closed a box on how you feel about it, something happens that reopens it and makes you doubt everything again. It is difficult not to blame the person who died. It is difficult not to feel guilty yourself. Dealing with the stigma and the taboo can be overwhelming. When you are yourself grappling with feeling of anger, blame, and guilt, it can be so difficult to hear someone else piling more on top by characterizing the person you’ve lost by their last desperate act. In some ways, it takes away the ability to fondly remember a person whom you dearly loved.
I have found it difficult to stay away from articles about Robin Williams. In some ways I think I’m hoping I’ll find those answers I’ve been searching for for 10 years. Maybe someone out there really does have some insight I haven’t yet come across. Perhaps I think I’ll find others who feel the way I do, and I have. But as I read the articles posted on my Facebook feed and the subsequent comments, although there are some that are supportive and insightful, overall I have found myself disappointed. It seems there is still a strong stigma surrounding suicide and I honestly believe that that cannot be helpful to anyone–not to those contemplating suicide, to those who have attempted, or to those who have lost people to it.
It is only human to try to distance oneself from death. We all do it. We read an article about someone who died skydiving and think, “I would never take a risk like that.” We hear about someone who died of lung cancer and think, “It couldn’t happen to me, I don’t smoke.” It is self preservation. A lot of how people feel about those who kill themselves is this distancing. “I would never kill myself. I’m strong.” “That wouldn’t happen to me. I would choose life.” “I would be different.”
Unfortunately, many of these rationalizations are just not realistic. Clearly, a person who commits suicide is not working in a normal mindset. They are not at a place where they can choose to be strong or see the good things that life offers. Rational thoughts are not the thoughts that lead a person to take their own life. Saying that depression is not a disease, that if a person can just choose life, that it is selfish–these are not helpful statements–whether or not you feel that they are true. Everyone gets their opinion and can share. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not constructive.
Suicide is a subject that is murky and twisted. It is wrought with emotion and even the experts do not understand it entirely. No one has all the answers about suicide. Not everyone who commits suicide is suffering in the same way, has the same background, the same mental illness. And, as illustrated by Williams, not everyone who kills themselves looks depressed to others. Simplifying it down to a ‘choice’ or a ‘weakness’ or even the result of a ‘disease’ doesn’t begin to explain the complicated and malfunctioning processes that bring a person to that point. We cannot really find out the why, because those who commit this act are no longer available to ask.
What I really want to say is that while you are entitled to your opinion and you have the right to share it, that does not mean that what you say doesn’t hurt people. Preventing suicide is a daunting and sadly, sometimes impossible, task. Yet, for those who feel passionately about it, it is an important goal. Commenting negatively on those who cannot change the horrible thing they’ve done only hurts those left behind and pushes those who might still be able to ask for help to shrink away from it for fear of being judged in the same way. I firmly believe that lifting the stigma, this idea that only weak people selfishly make this deliberate choice, can only help. It can help those left behind to heal and it can hopefully help those on the brink to find their way to treatment. Open discussion, an end to the blaming and categorizing, and a commitment to better understanding, better research on, and better treatment of mental illness is imperative if this fight is one to be fought.
I want to send my sympathy and understanding to Robin Williams’ family and friends. They have a long and difficult road to walk and, unlike me, they don’t get to choose who will know the truth. I wish them peace and comfort although I know that it will be hard to find.
As I do with every post I write on the subject I’m adding some links here. If you need help, please reach out.
This time I’m adding a link to the Out of the Darkness Walks as well. I am planning to walk in my father’s name at the NYC walk in October.