I was coming home from a long day of working when I saw the news on Twitter. Today, probably sometime this morning, Robin Williams, beloved American actor, passed away in his California home. The coroner suspects that he committed suicide, probably from asphyxiation.
In the short hour since his death broke to the world, I have seen a number of reactions. I’ve seen people saddened and shocked. I’ve seen them skeptical and decreeing how suicide is a “waste.” I’ve seen countless photos, videos, and quotations from the many characters Williams played, each one meaning so much to all of us who watched him in all of his films. In fact, I will be watching my favourite Robin Williams film, Dead Poets’ Society tonight, in memoriam.
Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Image: © Touchstone Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com
But I felt compelled to write this article because like any mental illness-related accident or death, there by the grace of God go I. And it’s not only in poor taste to deride a man who by all accounts, was going though severe depression at the time of his death, it’s also just plain wrong. Suicide isn’t “giving up” or “giving in.” Suicide is a terrible decision made by someone whose pain is so great that they can no longer hold it, and feel they have no other option in life but to end it. It’s a decision you can’t take back, and a decision that will affect your friends and family forever. It is not taken lightly.
Losing a person to suicide may feel like a waste. And I think it’s fair to react to it that way, especially in the first hard days of grief. For someone looking in, it does seem like a waste—especially in the case of Williams, who was a brilliantly funny man and a talented actor. But imagine, if you will, feeling so desperate, so desolate, so incredibly sad and hurt that you honestly cannot see a way out. The feelings leading to suicide are the darkest a human mind can fathom. It’s like being shut into a dark tunnel with no point of light to guide your way. You can hear voices on the outside, but the walls are too thick to get in. And feeling like it’s closing in, like there’s no way out—well, suicide, for that person, is a blessed release. Life, however, is never wasted. Williams did things in his life that touched people to their core. It is a sad, sad loss, but it is not a waste.
Suicide is not a weak decision. It is a decision that takes an incredible amount of strength to make, actually. Someone isn’t weak if they end their life. They are desperate. There is a difference. It’s okay to feel angry at the person for dying. It’s okay to question, to rail against the forces that caused this. But it isn’t weakness. Mental illness isn’t weakness. It’s a disease, a pervasive, sometimes awful disease. The person doesn’t deserve anger and skepticism forever. They deserve compassion. Their family deserves compassion.
Ending a life is incredibly, incredibly tragic. It represents a lost battle with mental illness. In that, it is no different than cancer, or diabetes, or a heart attack. Where it is different is that suicide is a choice. Whether it is the right or wrong choice for that person is solely the business of that person who commits suicide. But for the family left behind, it is devastating.
Don’t rail against Robin Williams, or anyone else, for committing suicide (if indeed, that is the cause of his death). Instead, reach out. Let people know you’re there for them. Find a crisis line in your area to call if you are feeling desperate and like you want to do something you can’t take back. Support the family and friends left behind in the best way you can. Let the people you love know that you love them and that you are thinking about them. Let them know that they are not alone.
Robin Williams taught me innumerable things about how to reach out to people and bring out the best in them. Through his characters, he taught me to seize the day, to make them laugh, to find everyone’s sense of humour, to be a friend. I will miss his work and his bright light in the world. I am so sorry that he felt like there was no other option. I send my love and my compassion to his family.
Oh captain, my captain, I hope you find peace on the other side.
To everyone who may be reading this, if you need to talk at all—I am available to listen, whoever you are. You are not alone.
RIP, Robin Williams.
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