This is a variation and update of a column I wrote last year when two prominent radio hosts and motivational speakers committed suicide. Unfortunately, it is again relevant to the news.
It used to be when I would give speeches for victims’ rights organizations or homicide survivor groups, I would begin with this observation:
While all deaths are tragic, there is one type of death that is more tragic than all the others, and that is murder. In virtually all other deaths in our society, the individual is surrounded by a support system of some sort, whether it is family and friends, doctors and nurses, police, fire or EMT personnel, or selected others. Only in murder cases is the individual alone, bereft of friends, hope or comfort, terrified and often in pain.
After one such presentation in southern Virginia, a woman came up to me and stated she was moved by what I had said, but there was another type of death that fulfilled the same grim criteria.
And that was suicide.
She told me that her son had committed suicide the year before, and had suffered all of the same aloneness and pain as murder victims. Moreover, she and her husband experienced the same sense of loss, emptiness and destruction of future possibilities as homicide victim survivors feel.
I couldn’t disagree.
This all came back to me again upon hearing that 63-year-old comic genius Robin Williams had taken his own life in a bedroom of his home in Tiburon, California.
No particular insights here, only a vicarious sadness that someone clearly so caring, with so much to live for, had a need to forsake all hope and possibility for the present and future. The fact that he couldn’t bear to stay alive, even for his wife and children, speaks volumes about the depth of his psychic pain and despair.
We have often heard of the dark side in the lives of so many people who make us laugh. And clearly, much of Mr. Williams’ work was rooted in the reality of pain. Fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried recalled a story that pretty much said it all about the relationship between humor and darkness:
“I remember hearing that Robin was once doing a press junket in Germany. One of the reporters asked him, “Why is it that Germany is not known for comedy?” Robin answered, “Well, you killed all your funny people.” I laughed out loud when I heard that. I thought, how sick and how wonderfully truthful.”
I am also reminded of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Cory,” about a handsome, stylish, fabulously rich gentleman who was also invariably gracious, and whom everyone envied. The last stanza packs one of the greatest emotional punches of contemporary poetry:
“So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
We had heard that Mr. Williams was “battling severe depression,” but that sounds so cold, analytic and detached. Regardless of what demons were torturing him, regardless of his fame, fortune, talent and popularity, let us acknowledge that no matter how people seem on the outside, we never know what challenges or demons they face inside. We do not excuse the demons in those who feel a need to take the lives of others. But we ought to feel great compassion and empathy for those who feel a need to take their own.
Because they are also victims.