I cried, really cried, when I heard about Robin Williams’ death by his own hand. For myself and everyone else who benefited from his genius, losing the light of laughter from his brilliance. For his family, especially his children, having to live without him, with the sudden death, with all the issues around becoming survivors of suicide. For him, facing enormous pain.
I don’t normally mourn the death of performers (although Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sparked similar feelings, at least in part because of sadness about the peformances we will never have from him). So I had to sit with why Robin Williams? The facts of the gift of laughter, and the inspired lunacy, and his being a local whom I’d seen live a few times, and his philanthropic works and his kindness reported repeatedly don’t quite explain it. It triggered a lot of pain for me, as someone who has lost loved ones to suicide.
Comics are famous for using their humor to hide their pain. And depression isn’t something one battles so much as lives with. Nor is suicide a laughing matter, although I hear that at least one comic, Brian Finklestein, specializes in telling his own truth of coming back from the brink, and gets both laughs and tears.
We have spent so much time since Sandy Hook looking at the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings we’ve experienced in this country lately. And with the death of James Brady, shot so many years ago, we are reminded that it’s not just “lately.”
All along, I’ve thought about the people whose mental illness turns on themselves: 38,285 people died by their own hand in 2011. Many more people in pain attempt suicide, that cry at a moment of excruciating pain that fortunately does not take their life from their loved ones. Yet? This time? If the gun weren’t available, the suicide attempt might not succeed, and the person might find new dedication to staying alive. (Research has shown this to be true, repeatedly.)
The stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness continues to separate people from the help they might get, the ability to talk about it, the potential tools and hands to reach across the abyss. Sometimes, when I sing the Mi Chamocha, a prayer taken from Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus, when we reached the other side, I think about people struggling with depression, feeling like that they are drowning in the sea, not able to reach the safety of dry land, not able to feel the hand of their community lifting them up. Do we pay attention to the ones who have fallen, help them up and move forward together? Do we listen even when it’s not entertaining? Can we listen when we have no solutions? Just be present and hold the space?
In last week’s torah portion, Ekev, we read one of my favorite set of verses: about what God expects of us—as we are commanded to circumcise our hearts, and stiffen our necks no more (Deut 12:10-19). This instruction to circumcise our hearts, to cut away the calluses, to open ourselves to the pain of others, calls to us to pay attention, to reach out our hands and grab on. Remember we were slaves to the narrow places of darkness, and help others in those same places.
I want mental illness to become something as treatable as hypertension and diabetes, where we can match a treatment to what ails you. I don’t know what that will take, but at least having the conversation may open some doors. Maybe letting people know that you can listen will help. Knowing suicide’s warning signs is important for the people you love, or just the people you know. Knowing where they (or you) can get help is also important. Knowing that help might actually help is also important. But it won’t always work. We haven’t learned to prevent very heart attack or stroke or cured cancer yet either. People die. But when they die by their own hand, there is a special pain related to it for the people left behind. Nothing quite like it.
So let’s be kind, let’s reach out. Let’s remember the vulnerable in our midst. Let’s let Robin Williams’ death help us be more compassionate going forward. And may his memory be a blessing.