As someone who writes about suicide, mental illness, and grief, I have felt compelled to respond to the death of Robin Williams. The problem is, I haven't known quite what to say. What do you say, when a beloved celebrity takes his own life? What do you say when anyone dies by suicide?
There are the initial, obvious truths: my heart hurts for him, for the pain he experienced throughout his life. My heart hurts for his family and friends, for the grief they will experience for years. My heart also swells with gratitude for the body of work he created. I suspect the depth of feeling that led him into depression and addiction was also the root of his ability to capture and reflect the full spectrum of human emotions. What a gift. What a burden.
Here's the thing about suicide: it can seep backward and stain an entire life. For years after my brother's suicide, I could only think about him in terms of his death. Any moment of joy or happiness was called into question. He'd suffered so deeply for so long--had any of the pleasure in life he'd expressed been real?
It took a very, very long time for that stain to fade. For me to allow my brother's life to be about more than his death. He, like Mr. Williams, made people laugh. He comforted. He celebrated. He loved.
Robin Williams's work may be tinged with bittersweetness, for a while. Some people may be angry. Some people may judge. I think most people will just feel sadness, and hopefully compassion. Eventually the stain will fade, and we will be left with his beautiful life. In the meantime, I hope the discussions that his death have sparked will continue. I hope we will think more deeply and more compassionately about helping each other through this sometimes overwhelming shit-storm called life. I hope we will talk more about suicide prevention and destigmatizing mental illness. And I hope we will remember to be gentle with each other, and ourselves.