When laughter is not enough: On the death of Robin Williams

Like many people around the world, the news of Robin Williams’ death came as a shock to me. Reports filled my Facebook feed so quickly I had very little trouble determining that it was not a hoax; the beloved actor and start of many of my favorite films was indeed dead at the too-young age of 63.

My reaction was amplified, though, by a single, important detail: Mr. Williams appears to have died by an apparent suicide. Reading this word, suicide, the death was no longer that of Robin Williams; it was that of my brother, a paranoid schizophrenic who took his own life in 2002. And I imagine that my experience was not that much different from how other suicide survivors—relatives and friends of those who have taken their own lives—reacted to the news as well. Fellow suicide survivors reached out to me to confirm that they, too, thought of their loved ones; they returned to that time and place in which they first heard the news. Upon reading the word “suicide,” I knew what would come next; indeed, as I scanned the comments attached to online accounts, I saw the familiar verbiage: “selfish,” “cowardly,” and “sinful.” I thought of how many times that has been said about my own brother, albeit in private or in conversations that did not take place on the national scale, and my heart began to hurt for the family members of close friends of Mr. Williams. In the coming days, we unfortunately will hear a good deal of commentary from persons who know little or nothing about Mr. Williams’ own life, yet feel qualified to speak about his act of suicide.

To be clear, I do not advocate suicide. I volunteer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and as a pulpit pastor and campus minister, I work diligently to be present in people’s lives when they are most vulnerable, praying with them and encouraging them to seek help. But I also know, as a pastor and as a brother, the incredible pain of mental illness and depression. I have seen firsthand how the medications fail, the talk therapy falls short, and the ravages of the disease take their toll on the afflicted. I have seen the panic and exhaustion in the eyes of those who suffer day in and day out with mental illnesses we barely understand; I’ve seen the frustration on the faces of those who are told, “Just get out of bed and do something; you’ll feel better!” I’ve seen the anger, the confusion, the desperation on their faces as they fail to find the words to explain their own private hell.

I also know what it is like to be left behind by one who commits suicide. The sudden death of any loved one is incredibly difficult to take, but suicide adds another level of pain and confusion. Unfortunately, attitudes within organized religion can be among the most stringent and uncompassionate. People throw around words such as “sin” and “hell” in a blasé manner, misquoting Scripture and championing poor theology. The simple fact is, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible or in the New Testament is suicide prohibited. Many of our cultural attitudes regarding suicide come more from Augustine than they do from the Bible (for more information, see my book The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide). Yet in the depths of grief and suffering, far too many suicide survivors hear people of faith speaking authoritatively on the fate of their loved one’s soul. One need only hop online, click an article about Mr. Williams’ death, scroll down to the comments, and start reading. Chances are, you won’t be reading long until you happen upon just such a typed statement.

The death of Robin Williams is a private tragedy being played out on a public stage. His talent was undeniable; he was open about his struggles with addiction; and reports of depression, especially in the last months of his life, were public. An overwhelming majority of us never knew Robin Williams; we certainly feel as though we did, given his powerful performances and general affability. Our grief cannot touch that of his family and friends, but what we can do is take this opportunity to pause and think about the ways in which we discuss suicide. We can examine our language and assumptions; we can use this opportunity to speak to one another about the ways in which suicide has touched our own lives. We can look around to see if there are people within our own circles that are crying out, who are looking for someone to care, to listen, to pay attention, to notice their pain. I cannot and will not speculate on what led Mr. Williams to his final act; that is not my business, and knowing those sorts of details will not change the fact that he left an incredible mark on this world that will not be sullied by the way he exited this realm. But I will speculate on what we can do as a society to improve our mental health care industry; what we can do to improve our communication with one another; and what we can do to be more compassionate, caring, and understanding to those who are most immediately impacted by suicide. We cannot and should not use the name of God to justify saying abhorrent things to those in the grips of ultimate despair.

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