What Can I Say About Suicide?

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.

Crisis Text Line

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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.



8 responses

  1. This is a powerful piece and while I have never known anyone who has committed suicide, I know many that speak negatively about it through their own ingnorance. Thank you for this post as I think it will touch many!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I also lost my dad through suicide during a similar time of life — my dad was 55 and I was 19 and my brother was 21. It’s been over 20 years now, and I know over the years I have really come to grasp the complexity of it, especially as someone who has been depressed and suicidal myself. Lately, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts about how horrible it must be to have this so public. Right after my dad died, we were just trying to cope when the local paper published a short article on his suicide without talking to any of us, I guess because it was part of the public record and a pretty exciting news story for a small town. I hated that they published what was such a personal, private thing.

    By its very nature, knowing that my dad shot himself tells you a lot more about my family and its secrets than if he had died any other way. I learned early on not to tell people how he died unless I was really close to them, mostly because people have such a weird reaction to a suicide — it really makes them uncomfortable because of it’s nature, not to mention the folks that think the person is going to hell because of it.

    When I went back to school after the funeral, I found that they had made an announcement to the entire school about my dad’s suicide, even after I explicitly asked them not to, and once again I just found myself feeling so exposed against my will.

    Also, with my dad, people did try to intervene. He was on antidepressants when he died. My mom found the first gun he bought and hid it. He just bought another. The cops were called when he was talking about suicide in the bar one night, but he was smart enough not to talk about it in front of them. And, even then, you can’t lock someone up forever. Later, we found out, he had been planning it for almost a year, and I am not sure anyone on this earth could have stopped him.

    These days, I do tell people the truth about how he died, in general, because I realize their discomfort is not my problem and don’t worry so much about their judgment — probably because I’m middle-aged now and also because I know how complex it all really is. And I don’t think the secrecy helps anything, really. Occasionally, sometimes, by being honest, people have shared their own similar suffering, so I see it as a good thing. But that’s only 20 years later. And even then, I’m pretty sure my brother still hasn’t told his kids, so I am careful not to say anything around them or on Facebook.

    I just can’t imagine having it spread all over and having to deal with all of the armchair psychoanalysis that’s going on. I know it’s probably unavoidable, but grieving a suicide is complicated and difficult enough without all of that.

    Well, this is a crazily long comment! Sorry for the length, but it’s rare that I get to share this much about it. Thank you for what you wrote — and I’m so sorry you and your family also had to go through this kind of loss.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story. I teared up out to lunch with my family while I read it. My dad was also in treatment when he died. I think that’s one of the reasons I felt a need to write. Suicide prevention is SUCH a difficult thing to take on. I’m so sorry you had to deal with your story being told without your permission. I can’t imagine dealing with that. Thank you for reading and again thank you for sharing.

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