By Karen James, LCSW-C
Suicide is a disaster. Certainly for the survivors and often for our memories of the person we lose. Robin Williams’ death ended a brilliant gift, left a grieving family, and affected the nation. Tributes, memories and discussions were everywhere—in the media and in personal discussions. He was a larger-than-life figure and we loved him. Yet there was some backlash and negativity also expressed by the public and the media. Some discussed suicide as cowardice; the worst of them harassed his daughter, Zelda, with pictures and insulting comments. His daughter removed herself from the public eye and swore off social media. She needed to protect herself from the cruelty of others’ judgments.
Some of us understood Zelda’s need to fiercely protect herself and her memories of her father. The traumatic deaths of our loved ones had already shown us both the best and some of the worst about others. The circumstances of such a death can distract from the loss of the person, especially if there is a community response that may contain unkind speculation and gossip. After trauma, support heals and judgment wounds. So we remembered both the kindnesses and the unkindness we experienced in the wake of our terrible loss.
We felt all of it —all over again. There are so many layers to grief; beneath the layer of empathy for this daughter’s vulnerability, we touched our sorrow. Some of us became lost there again for a while. Many of us felt compassion for the bystanders who tried to make some sense of what had happened. We had tried to understand too. It seemed important to learn what could be learned. The human need to understand personal and natural disasters often leads to constructive steps to protect us from future disasters. Families make safety plans. Companies change policies. Even surgeons have implemented a very low tech procedure to protect patients: an actual checklist of real and seemingly mundane steps that saves lives by decreasing errors and oversights.
Grief adds urgency to such a task. We want to ensure that this never happens again. Yet counselors also note a feeling that is not rational and probably unconscious in the early stages of grieving. Because this loss is so massively unacceptable and appears so totally unnecessary, there must be a way to turn it around. This is part of what has been known as “bargaining” in the stages of grief. Have you felt it or observed it in your community? “I must find the cause. It didn’t have to happen!” If we figure out what went wrong, maybe we can undo it.
Here human need grapples with the human condition. Our desire to control and manage the forces at play in life is pitted against the reality that we often can’t. Marshal as many resources as we can; try as we might. We research and implement and educate. We make gains in saving lives. But we have not yet learned how to stop tsunamis. And we don’t know how to prevent every suicide.
Suicide awareness and education is important. It is a necessary and worthy effort. It will help save lives. Please get all the help possible! Yes, improve mental health programs and reach out to those who suffer. Yes, do outreach and early screenings for diseases. Yes, emphasize health and fitness. Yes, develop strong networks of spiritual support. OK, support the idea that a positive attitude may decrease the stress when going through treatment for a serious illness. But never point the finger at those who lose those struggles and say that the death occurred because they did not try or they did not care. Many families and the individuals themselves have made a worthy and noble effort, done all that was advised, and still the suicide occurs.
Often we lose the dearest. Robin Williams was beloved by so many. The heartfelt responses about his meaning in those particular lives honor his memory, and comfort his family and friends. His colleagues in comedy shared their respect, awe and appreciation of the man who had lived. In their confusion and grief, they taught an important lesson of substance and purpose: celebrate the life and mourn the loss, not its means. They mourned and did not judge.
We must keep trying to prevent these deaths, while accepting the reality that we will sometimes be powerless. Suicide awareness efforts have been successful in decreasing some of the stigma around depression, substance abuse, and despair. Less often people are told to just try harder. Less often are they told that Jews, or Catholics, etc. do not have those feelings and would never commit that act. Less often are people who suffer shamed into silence.
If you know one of us who has lived through the trial of that type of death, do not shame us into isolation. Support the bereft and do not add to the burden. Do not assume that no effort was made. The individual and the family often have done all that was humanly possible. Not every problem can be fixed nor every disaster averted— despite the best of intentions and the strongest of efforts. Do not judge our loved one. Remember the life and honor the person. That gives us comfort.
By Karen James, LCSW-C, JCS Adult Therapy Services
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