Before anything else is said this needs to be said. Suicide is not a stain on anyone’s name or life. Suicide is a human tragedy and like any death we mourn it as an incalculable loss.
There are many reasons, often legitimate reasons, why someone chooses to take their own life. It is not a cowardly act. I can’t imagine anything more difficult to do. And the truth is we all have the right to that choice if we decide to take it.
I’ve heard all of the clichéd prohibitions to suicide and I reject them all. Religious people have often been carelessly insensitive about this, condemning suicide as a sin. Sincere but misguided ministers, of all faiths, and others can be too quick to weigh down the families of suicide members with guilt and shame claiming it an unforgivable act and making references to Judas selling out Jesus and then hanging himself.
Death is always a deep human loss in whatever form it comes. Suicide should not be compartmentalized into some extreme form of death or loss. The end of a person’s life is a profound event, period. That person is not ever returning to our world or to us. Their life is over. That is the reality we must live with not how their life ended.
This is not to say that suicide should be easily dismissed. It shouldn’t. It eclipses simple explanations. It is not a fatal heart attack. It is not a destroying cancer. Something extraordinarily dooming is going on in the mind and spirit and life of a person who commits suicide. We cannot fathom what that is if we have not been in that situation. We cannot judge. We cannot be without deep compassion.
Depression, addiction, grief, chronic pain, these things can destroy a person’s will to live. Robin Williams suffered with both long term depression and addiction. Although he had been sober for some years the issues that drove him to addiction did not suddenly disappear. There are residual effects that are always lurking. His depression seems to have been what took him into his final desperation. And if you have never been severely depressed or had a loved one or friend in that condition then you have no idea how tormenting it can be. People who are chronically depressed and suicidal have ceased to belong to the future. The sadness of that is overwhelming to them and often deadly.
The brilliantly gifted novelist David Foster Wallace said that when chronic depression as an “invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level” then tragedy often follows. He should know. At age 46 and in the highlight of his beautiful career he killed himself. He had fought debilitating depression for years.
People who die of suicide are often simply worn down by the long, hard struggle to exist. Many in this emotional state say with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To die, to sleep…/to say we end/the heartache and the thousand natural shocks/that flesh is heir to/’tis a consumption/devoutly to be wish’d.”
It is appropriate that someone with so much inner hurt and emotional turbulence would spend his life making others laugh. Robin Williams's gift was to transform his pain into the pleasure of seeing others find joy. He seemed driven by that purpose.
The dramatic movie, "What Dreams May Come," may well describe Williams's struggle more than any other movie he was in, most of which were funny. And though this one allows for flashes of his wonderful sense of humor it is very different. There are many fascinating themes in the film. But his character, Chris Nielsen, who loves to paint, is killed. Afterwards his wife writes in her journal: "He used art as another way to love me, to help me. To always keep us together."
I think in real life Robin Williams used his art, his comedic genius, to do that, too. For his family, for his friends, for all of us.
That is what needs to be remembered. Not how he died. Nothing else. Only that. I think it is more than enough to honor the time he was here.
(c) 2014 Timothy Moody