I’ve done a lot of wincing this week. There are so many posts, SO MANY from people who have something to say about the death of Robin Williams, and while there are some lovely tributes there is also, quite frankly, a whole pile of rubbish.
This isn’t another post about his suicide, exactly. I loved his work but I didn’t know him, and I don’t want to pretend that I do. I do know, however, what it feels like to face the world after a suicide and so this is a post about being left behind. It’s the kind of thing you never get over, so much as you get used to.
When my friend Steve died by suicide, I joined the ranks of those trying to make sense of something that can never be explained away–though we tried. When suicide directly affected my family a few years later, however, I became one of the Left-Behinds, a survivor of suicide. I remember being at work, standing in my cubicle, having just received a phone call.
“Hi Dad.” I’m immediately on edge. Dad doesn’t call me at work.
“Hi,” he said. “Are you sitting down?”
“I can’t sit down Dad, I’ve got a stand-up desk.”
“Well you should go somewhere and sit down.”
Wary irritation creeps into my voice. “Dad, just tell me. Is it Joyce?” Joyce is my sister-in-law. She was staring down cancer and she’d won–for a while. She wasn’t winning that battle anymore. I’d been waiting for this call.
“No.” A big pause. “Jessi.”
“Jessi?” Jessi is my nephew, just 23 at the time. He was healthy, he was a new dad, he was getting married. “Was there an accident or something?”
“No,” Dad said, with a quavering tone I’d seldom heard before. “I guess he did it to himself.”
It was a Tuesday.
That was the worst summer. Five weeks later, Joyce died too. Two funerals in as many months.
When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly as Steve and Jessi had, it’s hard to keep the emotions straight. I was furious with Steve. I couldn’t understand why he’d done nothing
but wave at me a few days before. I’d have listened to him, tried to help. Many of us would have. Why hadn’t he given us that chance? The first emotion I felt after disbelief was anger. It lasted for many months.
It wasn’t that way with Jessi. I had flashes of anger, but they were secondary to the incredible sadness that threatened to smother me. The intensity of that sadness remains. When Jessi died, I understood more than I had when Steve died. In a strange way I’m grateful to God for giving me a means to resolve that anger before suicide became a family matter. I think it made me more compassionate, particularly towards my sister and my niece during a time when reliable information was scarce.
In contrast, Joyce’s death was expected. The emotions are different. Of course I miss her and the talks we shared. She died too young as well, in my opinion, but I was thankful she’d been relieved of the considerable pain she’d been in. I want more time with her, just as I do with Jessi. I miss her laugh, and I’m sad.
But it isn’t the same.
For the Left-Behinds, these weeks where suicide is a trending topic are incredibly difficult. In a heartbeat we are taken back to our Tuesdays. We grieve all over, again. We shake our heads and sob because of comments from people who don’t know any better–at the same time hoping they never have to find out. We pray the dialogue will in the end, be helpful.
But for those who have just joined our ranks–we share in their grief by remembering our own. We offer up prayers they will be protected from unkind and thoughtless comments when they are already trying to deal with unkind and inexplicable circumstances. “It’s not logical,” we whisper. “It will never be logical.”
People need to talk about suicide and the mental health issues that lead to it. It isn’t painless, not for the one who considers it, and certainly not for the Left-Behinds. Comments flung out on the air–particularly those made only for perceived political or comedic gains–without regard for survivors of suicide can be incredibly damaging.
Still, a high-profile suicide has the opportunity to raise awareness, and we hope it will. The more people talk, the more struggling people hear that help is available, the more they may reach out for it. Hopefully more awareness will also translate to more support for ethical research and treatment, because right now in Canada, the wait time is just too long. People need help when they need it, not when it can be scheduled in.
But, even as I type that, I know sometimes the resources are there and used, and still the darkness is too much. Sometimes, no matter how much we love someone, we are the wrong people to help them or we haven’t yet learned the skills. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we are left behind anyway. It’s the most difficult thing. We still have to try.
Most importantly, if you are struggling, please don’t give up. Make sure your brain is telling you the truth before you listen to what it says.