robin williams, again: on ‘cowardice’ and compassion


I hadn’t planned on writing again about Robin Williams’ death (I hadn’t planned on it the first time), but each new suicide kicks up some dust from the old ones. And when Fox News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a coward, I almost choked.

Smith has since apologized. Good. He should have. Still, some points need to be made, here.

First: Williams wasn’t a coward. My husband wasn’t a coward. My sister wasn’t a coward. My dear friends who killed themselves weren’t cowards. They were good, loving, generous and sensitive people who battled demons so vicious and alienating that they believed they were better off dead.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say this again, I won’t stop staying this, ever: suicide never makes sense. Neither Williams’ misery nor the misery of those left behind can be explained by any worldly logic. But the hurt that his death afflicted on his loved ones doesn’t negate the agony he was in — God only knows for how long — or the compassion that it merits from us.

No, he wasn’t a coward. Cowards aren’t people in pain. Cowards aren’t people who face and fight a crushing urge to die. Cowards are people who make snap judgments out of fear. Who look down at those who suffer. Who fail to regard another person’s torment with anything but love.

Second: The pain that suicide inflicts on its survivors is beyond all human ken. So the natural human response is, inevitably: WTF? THAT couldn’t have happened, because THAT PERSON was loving and giving and good. THAT PERSON would not have grievously wounded his family and friends. THAT PERSON would never have given up on life. THAT PERSON wouldn’t do that.

Now, this word “do.” Hmmm. That’s a verb. Did you notice? It implies a subject, an agent, an actor in the broad sense. Someone must actively do suicide. It isn’t done to them. It never just happens. It involves an act. The problem with any act is that it suggests a choice; and the problem with suicide is that the act is so damned unconscionable, it causes so much damage, and it prompts so many powerful, elemental surges of bafflement and anger. How could it not?

And yet suicide is not a choice. Is it an act carried out in the depths of self-loathing? Yes. Is it a rational decision? No. My husband was so altered by depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety — so alien and muddled in his thinking — that he was, by the time he stood at the lip of that roof, taking those actions, an entirely different person. He was logically incapacitated by mental illness.

So, no, his suicide wasn’t a choice. It was an impulse followed in the dark of a fleeting moment after too many such fleeting moments. Had that impulse ended and the moment passed, he might still be here. It didn’t, so he isn’t, so I and all who loved him are left to parse the larger lessons from his death.

They’re the same lessons we’re parsing now in the wake of Robin Williams’.

Lesson number one: We need to talk about mental illness. We need to see it with clear eyes and a caring heart. We need to not run away from it because it frightens us or confuses us or cuts too close to home. We need to be brave and smart. We need to stare it in the face. We need to see it in others’ faces. We need to see it in our own.

Lesson number two: We need to choose, with absolute conviction, to live. Sanity is too tenuous in this world, pain is too prevalent, to take too lightly the possibility that any of us could break. Even if Williams didn’t rationally choose death, we must rationally choose life in the aftermath. We must do what we can to keep ourselves sane and grounded on this beautiful mess of rock and air and water. We must treat each day as a gift and give in return. We must promise to make choices with the highest possible yield of love, for love, in the end, is the only real buffer against the spasms and agonies that befall us.

Anyone who reaches the ledge of suicide is past all reason. Because of that, we need to step away from it now. We need to profess to each other a commitment to living now. We need to promise now not to kill ourselves — and must act, however we’re able, against the encroaching blackness.

We need to make those choices when we can, so we never reach the moment when we can’t.

11 thoughts on “robin williams, again: on ‘cowardice’ and compassion

  1. We also need to talk about alcoholism and “dual diagnosis” and the links between addiction and behavior with dire consequences.

    Realizing that my history and projection is probably a factor seems not to be stopping me from getting bent out of shape by how Robin Williams’ very open and public struggle with alcoholism is basically being ignored. I wish his suicide would open up conversations about alcoholism as well as those about mental illness. But then, I wish for a lot of things.

  2. Reblogged this on The Art of Erika M. Klein: News & Announcements and commented:
    So many do not recognize or honor the fact that mental illness can be all consuming, overwhelming, and invisible to the rest of the world. These battles are not a choice, nor are they any less hard than something you can physically see. Rather, sometimes it’s harder. Most can’t imagine how it might feel to be left to fight alone, hearing others say “but you look fine…” , and having to feeling that admitting something is actually wrongs not allowed or acceptable.

    Those in that situation do not want to hurt anyone else, do not say anything because they do not want others to worry, stay silent, or say I’m fine. They learn very well how to lie, how to hide it, how to seem ok. Should they get to the same point where the fight is just too hard it is not cowardice you are right. When something like this happens it leaves the rest of the community (large or small) wondering what happened, how they missed signs, why that person gave up.

    So I would like to Thank You Amy for wording this blog entry so well. I am sorry that it took being a survivor to have you find this, but I am glad you found the courage to share it.

    (Thank you to whomever reads this and understanding that every so often there is an occasion where the main focus of a blog entry is to help understand a current situation. I continue to be a strong believer in the fact that art can help you get through your own trials, struggles, and battles. Even if your art at that moment feels dark and destructive, it’s still you fighting that battle. For more ways to help heal yourself or get through I recommend “The Soul’s Palette: Drawing on Art’s Transformative Powers” by Cathy Malchiodi. It helped me and is one I still turn to when I need it.)

  3. Double dipping to add that I woke up to a Mashable article reporting that Williams’ was in the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and was not ready to go public with that; his sobriety was intact, so now I’m wondering if people will shift focus to PK? In any event, a fine lesson in…lots of stuff.

    • Actually, Robin Williams was diagnosed with Lewes Body Dementia. This diagnoses would makes his suicide a rational choice, however, by the time he did it successfully, his dementia was quite bad. Thus, he wasn’t entirely rational by that point. Of course, as someone who has seen dementia in multiple family members- you are rational enough if you actually still have executive functioning. Robin’s choice considering the mutilple diagnoses he had, and the road he faced, was a completely understandable choice, not only for him, but for the sake of his family.

      Here is what his wife has written about his suicide:

  4. Amy, when I heard the news about Robin Williams’ suicide last Monday, you were the first person I thought of. When I saw the photo of his beautiful daughter, I had to wonder why he couldn’t love her enough to stick around and spare her this heartbreak, just as I’ve wondered the same thing about your husband. Then I read about how he had been sleeping in a dark room for 20 hours/day, and I started to recognize exactly what you have articulated here. Thank you for speaking out about this.

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