I first heard about Robin Williams’ death while I was standing in line at my mother’s viewing and a friend’s BlackBerry dinged with the news alert from CNN.
It was a surreal, if brief, moment. Not to be insensitive, but while I always liked Mindy’s Mork and all the other incarnations of this gifted actor, the death of a stranger was exponentially less important than my personal grief. Still, when I heard it was a suicide, my fleeting first thought was that my mother had fought so valiantly to cling to something Williams had just thrown away.
It was only many, many hours later after we’d laid mom to rest and I’d dried my eyes, not for the last time, that I focused on the deeper implications of Williams’ death.
Any time I hear that someone has taken his life, I travel backward in time to Jan. 26, 1998. That night, I came home from giving a lecture on immigration at my alma mater and, flush with pride, rushed through the front door ready to regale my mother with news of my triumph.
She was sitting on the living room couch, which was the first indication something was wrong, since most of her waking hours were spent in the kitchen, cooking-cleaning-cooking-cleaning.
But it was the look in her eyes and the complete absence of color in her beautiful Italian face that told me something was horribly wrong, and would never be right again. Mom looked up at me and in a voice that seemed completely detached from her body said, “Jon killed himself.”
Jon was my baby brother, 30 years old but still my “baby,” who had moved to Boston years before and who I hadn’t seen in more months than I could remember. He wasn’t part of my daily life and his presence hovered around its periphery, but he was my brother and shared DNA, memories and idiosyncrasies of the clan.
When I heard that he had taken his life, I felt a visceral, pulling pain, as if the ties that bound us were in that moment being stretched, snapped and shredded. It was a physical hurt.
I did not, of course, feel that when I learned that Robin Williams had followed Jon down the path of despair, but the news conjured up a similar mix of emotions, including deep sadness, deeper anger and incomprehension.
No matter how many times I hear of someone committing suicide, I am unable to understand the why and the how of this act. This is one area where empathy can’t take me far, and sympathy struggles to make any inroads in my heart. I feel sadness for the survivors, anger at the suicide, and anger at myself for not being able to just shrug my shoulders, as if this were another aberration in an already aberrant society.
To me, suicide is an act of violence against the single body that commits it, and succumbs, but it spreads out to assault all of us. And I’m not just talking about the loved ones of the departed. I’m talking about all of those who might have one day met the suicide in some future instance had he not made the desperate choice to end everything. I’m talking about those who never would have met him, but who fight like crazy to survive against difficult odds like illness and poverty and war. I’m talking about those who might look at suicide as a solution after looking at someone else’s example.
In her book “Stay,” Jennifer Michael Hecht writes that “the suicidal person owes something to his or her future self; a future self who might feel better and be grateful that the person who he or she once was fought through the terrible times to make it something better.” This is, I think, the saddest part of the whole scenario, the idea that has been commonly bandied about of suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
The person that in 1998 feels the walls crashing into them might, if they simply wait through the pain, find that 1999 would bring joy.
In my brother’s case, that joy would have come in the form of the third birthday of his little girl, the hugs she would have lavished on him, the comfort of his mother’s presence. They are now together again, but how wonderful if Jon and Mom could have shared these last 16 years together with all of us.
Over the years, I’ve learned that suicide can be the result of depression, an actual disease that needs to be treated and is now coming out of the shadows of shame. This is good, and necessary. But as Hecht notes in her book, it is also a function of the idea fostered in this post-modernist society that we are individuals with rights, including the inalienable right to end our lives if we want.
That sense of obligation to others, John Donne’s conviction that no man is an island, has been lost.
Robin Williams made the world a happy place. My brother, on a smaller scale, did the same. But they were unable or unwilling to manage their hidden pain. In their honor, we need to stretch our hands out to those who are falling off the cliff and scream at the top of our lungs “Stay!”
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.