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.