In more than 25 years as a suicide survivor and over a decade as a professional writer, I have never written publicly on the topic.
But with news of Robin Williams’ death taking center stage in both traditional and social media, I feel the need to speak up for his children. To speak up for my sister and myself. To be the voice of kids who have lost a parent to suicide.
Why do I think Williams’ death has struck such a tender nerve of society?
Because he had three grown children and a new wife he appeared to adore. Because, despite his addictions, he had gotten help and was sober, living relatively scandal-free by Hollywood standards.
Because he maintained a prolific acting career for more than 30 years, earning an Academy Award and starring in more than 100 movies, including four new ones yet to debut. Because he was, by all accounts, as intelligent, hilarious and compassionate as the characters he portrayed.
Because Robin Williams, the iconic actor and comedian, looked like he had it all and then some.
How could he be so “cowardly” and “selfish” to thumb his nose at a seemingly perfect life?
“Aye,” I imagine Williams quoting “Hamlet,” dropping into one of his quintessential Shakespearean accents. “There’s the rub.”
Indeed, at the core, there are no simple answers to the inevitable question that follows suicide: “Why?”
The problem, says author Tom Clempson in his August 12 blog post “Robin Williams Did Not Die From Suicide,” is that suicide implies a choice, that Williams chose to die.
“When people die from cancer, their cause of death can be various horrible things,” he writes. But if asked how that person died, he says, “You never hear anyone say ‘pulmonary embolism,’ the answer is always, ‘cancer.’”
And just as a pulmonary embolism is symptomatic of cancer, so suicide is to depression. Williams didn’t die of suicide, Clempson argues. He died of depression.
“Depression is an illness, not a choice of lifestyle,” he says. “You can’t just ‘cheer up’ with depression, just as you can’t choose not to have cancer.”
Yes! I thought when I read that. It’s as ludicrous as blaming a cancer patient for dying of a pulmonary embolism! Clempson nailed it!
The thing is, there’s a dramatic difference among the loved ones left behind.
Sure there’s grief, mourning, sadness. Most of us have lost someone who died too young, too quickly or too horribly from a chronic disease.
And if, for example, cancer wins the “fight” against our loved one, there generally aren’t the “coulda, woulda, shouldas.” Yes, cancer is awful. But in the end, “cancer” is the bad guy. No one else is at fault.
And let me be perfectly clear: Regardless of the cause of death, grief is the same. One doesn’t trump the other in that department. Losing a loved one, for lack of a better word, sucks. Period.
But when a loved one dies by suicide, that grieving process for those left in its wake adds with it shame and guilt. Shame that a loved one will be judged for taking his own life. Guilt that you could have, no, should have done more to prevent that devastating result.
And if you’re a child whose parent dies by suicide, those feelings become all the more complex, with an extra dose of guilt.
Add in an overwhelming sense of abandonment and betrayal, and you get one very mixed-up, dejected soul, who can’t help but ponder that fact that a parent chose death over flesh and blood. That he chose death over you.
My father, Vince, died more than 25 years ago, shortly after my 15th birthday; my sister, Briana, was only 10. A longtime alcoholic, he had moved to Northern California and remarried.
Hundreds of miles away, in a stable home with our mom and stepdad, we remained blissfully unaware of my father’s struggles. That his many attempts at sobriety were unsuccessful. That his second marriage was ending in divorce. That many of his family members suspected schizophrenia after hearing his outlandish stories of undercover DEA work and street gangs.
It was all too easy to ignore the fact that our father wasn’t a significant part of our daily lives.
I’ll never forget the crack in my grandmother’s voice that night in November 1988, when she called asking to speak to my mom. It was just nine days shy of my father’s 36th birthday.
Amid all of the tears and confusion, I was beating myself up inside: Why didn’t I try harder to be a better daughter? Why didn’t I write him letters? Why didn’t I call more often? Did he think we didn’t love him?
And I knew even then that others were exacting judgment. I felt it keenly in the pitying stares of the adults in my life — neighbors, teachers, friends, even relatives — beseeching, “How could he do that to his girls?”
After the funeral, we went back to life as usual; we didn’t talk about my father. I believe the adults were trying to protect us from further damage. I worried that asking questions would cause them more pain. And still I blame no one.
But now as a 40-year-old adult, I’m reliving my father’s judgment through Williams’ critics. And I can’t stop thinking about his children.
I don’t profess to know a thing about them. But I do know this: They are probably in pain. They probably feel guilt. And despite what you feel about suicide — be it a choice or a symptom of depression — his kids are probably bearing the brunt of that judgment.
Compounding that anguish is the shame of suicide and resulting isolation. Others don’t know what to say or how to offer comfort, which only perpetuates the silence and stigma surrounding suicide. Before you know it, 25 years have passed with hardly a word.
Only since becoming a mother have I begun excavating the details of my father’s death. I might never answer the question “Why?” But in doing so, I hope I can guide my children toward a fulfilling life, despite a family history of depression, and to be free of the shame that’s kept my family silent for a quarter century.
Finally, to Robin Williams’ children, Zachary, Zelda and Cody, I am profoundly sorry for your loss, and even more so that you have to grieve publicly.
If I can offer reassurance, it’s that you are not alone; there are many of us out here who understand your anguish. And you don’t need to be ashamed or silent.
In the days since hearing of your father’s death, I’ve thought often about a favorite movie of his, “Dead Poets Society.” As 16-year-old student, I felt his character, Mr. Keating, was speaking directly to me when he chanted to his class:
“The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
I hope my verse has offered you some comfort. And I hope yours includes peace.