Suicide Reminds Us Just How Fragile Life Can Be
Standing in the checkout lane yesterday, a special edition of Time Magazine on the rack caught my eye. Remembering Robin Williams: His Beautiful Life – Five years Later. “My God,” I murmered. “That was five years ago.”
Every generation, it seems, is impacted by the death of someone famous, a tragedy that makes a permanent imprint on your brain recording exactly where you were and what you were doing. John Kennedy, Elvis. John Lennon. And it’s even more sad and tragic when you learn that a person you admire had come to a point in their life at which they believed they could no longer go on, and made the fateful decision to end their own life.
On a humid southern evening in August, my wife Jennair and I were enjoying an evening minor league baseball game with colleagues, when I felt the familiar buzz of my phone in my back pocket. Annoyed, but admittedly powerless to ignore it, I pulled it out to see who was texting me after office hours. But it wasn’t a text message. It was a news alert from my CNN app. “Breaking News: Robin Williams Dead After Apparent Suicide”
I gasped. And then I tapped Jennair on the shoulder and handed her my phone. “Oh my God.” she said losing her breath, clutching her hand to her chest. The rest of the evening was ruined.
For Jennair and I, Robin Williams was one of the most influential actors of our generation. From the moment we saw him freeze Fonzie, and all the moments in those iconic rainbow suspenders, we knew he was special, so ridiculously gifted and laugh-out-loud funny. We would later come to love him even more as he showed his range as a serious actor. On our first date in 1990, Jennair and I were both eager to see him in “Awakenings”, where he played a doctor alongside his catatonic patient Robert De Niro. After the movie, I remember Jennair and I, being the music and stage nerds that we were, having a haughty discussion, trying to impress one another with our knowledge of film using film-student words like, “cinematography”.
In 1989 Robin Williams gave a performance that would have the greatest, longest lasting impression on twenty year old me. I can still recall every marrow-sucking word, after watching Dead Poet Society more than twenty times. It’s become one of the most quoted movies about the preciousness of life. “Seize the day!” Mr. Keating said, “Because we are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.”
Keating turns the lives of impressional young men upside down, showing them how to truly appreciate not just poetry, but the beauty and essence of life. But when a pivotal character, inspired by those words, later takes his own life because he feels powerless to break the bonds of his father’s wishes, powerless to make decisions for his own life, the film takes a dramatic and lamenting turn. Suicide has a way of shocking people and of stopping us in our tracks to question our values and the direction of our lives.
But undaunted, the spirit he had injected into these impressionable boys, persevered. Despite the tragedy, they cherished the lessons they had learned and the gift of newfound perspective they had received. They would never see things the same again. Their lives were dramatically altered forever. And so was mine.
I remember vividly how disappointed Jennair and I were, and upset at him for deciding to end his life, for taking the easy way out. But what we didn’t understand at the time was how much pain he had endured from battling years of crippling depression. It was more than he could bear and the only way out, the only relief he could see, was to follow the message his malfunctioning brain was sending him — “End it. “
I’m no longer angry at Jennair for taking her own life. I am sad and forever changed by her loss. I’m angry at her sickness and the dark forces that drove her decision to kill not once, but twice. And I’m angry that Meredith Sullivan wasn’t given the choice to live. I’m angry that she didn’t get the chance to take the world by storm like I knew she would do. Life is precious and not to be taken for granted or squandered. We must make the most of what little time we have.
For months after the murder-suicide that changed my life, it had become a well worn path in my own head. Walk up to the edge of not wanting to go on. Look down and then out across the huge chasm ahead, acknowledging the fear, the dread, the toxic thoughts and voices, urging me “take the next step.” And then I back away.
I choose to live. I choose to turn this pain into energy, to see things differently; to do things differently; to live differently. I have come to accept that I will never fully recover. The barbs may eventually become be a little less sharp, but the pain is permanent. It’s what I do with this pain that makes it bearable, and potentially powerful. Talking and writing about it is just the first step.