“Life is still a gift,” I told my kids after my husband killed himself. “It’s still worth it. We’re still here.”
I said this aloud – to them, to myself, to the cosmos. I wasn’t always sure I believed it, but I said it. And generally, not long after saying it, I collapsed on the floor in some corner of the house and cried out my eyeballs into shriveled, puffy things resembling dried figs. Then I peeled myself off the floor and said it again: Life is still a gift.
Losing a loved one to suicide hurts like hell: there’s an obvious truth if there ever was one. But there are other truths, some hard, some hopeful. If you’ve suffered such a loss yourself, you know too much of these truths already. There’s no knowing just a little. To lose someone to suicide is to comprehend its aftermath — its endless, agonizing and messy emotional aftereffects — from the inside out, and to understand, from the first shattering moment you hear the news, that everything you thought you understood about living and loving has been irreparably altered. The result is a profound loss of innocence. There is no going back.
I was in grade school when my homeroom teacher sat inside her garaged car while it idled, killing herself. What I recall most vividly is the sight of another teacher, an older woman with springy gray hair, crying in our classroom with a face crushed by grief. This was Lesson One I learned from suicide: that it wounds those left behind.
A year or so later, when I was 11, my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills, sending him into a nine-day coma and a sixth-month stay in a pure talk therapy program (no meds, not ever) at the Institute of Living in Hartford.
Lesson Two: I could lose anyone this way, even the people who mattered most. As a kid, staring at my father’s unconscious, bloated form in I.C.U., I learned that life is capricious. That it could take sudden turns into darkness, no matter the light that surrounds us. I realized in that moment that love, whether my father’s or mine or anyone else’s, might not be enough to bind us all together in this world. I saw that pain can be insidious enough to pry someone suddenly away, even a kind and ebullient genius like my father.
My mother told me this wasn’t my fault. It was nothing I did. It wasn’t a failure to love on my part or anyone’s, including their father’s. I did my best to believe her.
When he returned home, it felt like a miracle – to me, to all of us. And so it was. Lesson Three: Sometimes the darkness abates.
Lesson Four: Sometimes it doesn’t. It didn’t in 1991, when a good friend of mine shot himself. It didn’t in 1992, when my sister – another kind and ebullient genius — swallowed fatal mouthfuls of psych drugs after too many years of struggling with neurological and emotional problems, far too many hospital stays, far too many meds.
And it didn’t in 2011. That’s when my husband, Chris, the father of my three children and my rock for more than 20 years — a grounded, giving man with a dazzling intellect and a deep core of goodness – lost his mind over six months of insomnia, anxiety and depression. After three brief hospital stays and a few failed tries at medication, he leapt to his death from the roof of a parking garage a mile from our home.
Everyone asked why. I had no answers. All I could say to baffled friends, crushed by the grief I first glimpsed as a child, was this: I don’t know. This can’t be understood. He lost himself; he couldn’t bring himself back; nothing worked. No matter how I tried or what I said or how hard I loved him, he just got sicker, drifting further and further away.
Lesson Five: You can’t love someone back to wholeness.
All I could say to my children was what my mother had told me: This wasn’t their fault. It was nothing they did. It wasn’t a failure to love on theirs or anyone’s part, including their father’s. He loved them, I explained. He didn’t make some rational “decision” to leave us. Instead, he was dragged into a deep and enveloping hole that was too dark to see and too powerful to escape.
Lesson Six: Suicide makes no sense. Not the pain that leads to it. Not the act itself.
There never is. I knew that much, and I knew I couldn’t try to explain it to my children. What I tried hard to explain instead is the need to push forward in the wake of such a loss, even if pushing forward just meant getting up out of bed the next morning. Precisely because suicide is senseless, we can’t take the act itself as a refutation of life. We can’t give it that power.
Chris’s death didn’t negate life – not his own, not ours in his absence. It didn’t mean we couldn’t go on. It meant the opposite: It meant we had to.
Saying this to my three kids was one thing. Acting on it was another. Trying to model faith in life while simultaneously expelling bulk quantities of saline from facial orifices was a trick and a half. But in the days that followed, with the help of family, friends and neighbors bringing warm hugs and plates of ziti to our door, we found ourselves in the business of living. Laughter struck at the strangest, sweetest times. Happiness snuck in over the transom.
Early on, I worried about the increased suicide risk for survivors – and here I was, a repeat. But a wise friend reminded me gently that I had learned other another lesson from suicide – a lesson filled with hope that fixed me securely in this beautiful world with my beautiful children, embracing what gifts might come. I had learned that the answer to suicide isn’t more suicide. It’s more life.
Lesson Seven: Light is the only cure for darkness; living is the only cure for death.
So my children and I continue to live, continue to love, continue to laugh. We all continue to grieve, in our different ways. Their father’s death wounded us all. He was torn from us abruptly, insidiously. His darkness never abated, and it made no sense. Those lessons all hold and always will.
But the only way forward is forward. The only path out is through. As we walk it, as we stumble, we find new blessings and make new friends.
Lesson Eight: Life is still the only game in town. And it still brings joy.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
Thanks for writing this.
I have often thought about death, its unavoidable at a certain age, when so many people you know and love die.
Its been my own experience that death seems to feel reasonable when you think that theres no way out of the pain. But I found the courage and freedom to do and be what ever I want instead. For me, it was the willingness, to let go of myself, to lay down and become the pain, that set me free from its hold. It gave me a tremendous freedom. A freedom to understand my hurt from the inside-out, that was curative for me. The objectified outside- in version I was taught in Grad school, seldom makes any difference.
A very hopeful piece, especially given the vast amount of experience you have with suicides. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through, and my best wishes to your children, and with your book.
Thank you for sharing your heart wrenching experience(s) and acquired wisdom with us. I am so sorry for your pain and for the hurt that your children have been through. I love your quote, “Light is the only cure for darkness; living is the only cure for death.”
I applaud your courage and strength…one step at a time, we move forward beyond and through our pain…and find joy along the way… wishing you peace and joy.
Beautifully written and articulated. This is someone anyone struggling with the tragic aftermath of suicide should be give to read. It inspires hope and reaffirms the power of love and tenacity and life.
I have so touched by the dignity, courage, and love Robin Williams children have shown in their comments and actions following the tragic loss of their father. Their desire to celebrate his love and genius and to seek to bring joy and happiness into the world shows how beautifully they were loved and nurtured by their parents. And to live out ones sadness in the glare of publicity has been handled by them with such grace. Robins children are obviously his greatest legacy.
You spoke of your husbands struggle against the “darkness” that overwhelmed him and mention his hospital stays and “medication trials”. Based on everything we read on this site regarding psychiatruc drugs triggering akathisia, more anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, it possible these medications played a significant role in your husband’s decline and death?
You mention your fathers recovery from a sleeping pill overdose ( assuming psych drug involvement) and his recovery in a talk based drug free program. Is this perhaps a better route for the road to recovery from illness?
Did not proof! my comment above! I meant something, not someone…. Given, not give… I have “been” so…!!
Your strength, fortitude and wisdom cannot be overstated. As well as your generosity for sharing your very brave and heartbreaking story. Life is a teacher, and you are channeling her abundantly.
Lesson five was highlighted for me: “You can’t love someone back to wholeness.”
Indeed, it is vital we learn to love ourselves, as we are the only ones that can bring ourselves to wholeness. Probably the essence of our feeling powerless, when we see others suffer and cannot do anything about it. Yet, I’d say it’s a powerful lesson to understand and practice our surrender to truth, and to allow it to carry us forward, enriched and, somehow, freer.
Thank you for this very moving piece. Blessings to you.
Much appreciation for what you’ve shared here. As someone who also lost a parent to suicide, the lessons I learned were similar but somewhat less hopeful (I think I like yours better). My feeling is that suicide does make sense and can be understood, but it’s a dark and terrible logic that must be resisted — because life is the only game in town as you put it so well. And even when joy isn’t possible, meaning can be found or created.
I wonder if part of the reason psych drugs so often push people to suicide might be that they cut a person off from a felt sense of connection and the ability to hold onto the thread of meaning in life. That was definitely my experience when I took them — everything felt flat and empty and there was no buffer against that dark and terrible logic.
I’m sorry you suffered grief. But grief is probably why your loved one took his life.
Why would anyone want a loved one to live in unbearable pain? Why would you want a loved one kept alive against his or her will? Not accepting suicide and honoring the autonomy of another human is an anti-life attitude, I believe. Life is not so beautiful for 90% of the world’s population–it is brutal, humiliating, torturous and, at best, lit only by flickers of light.
Someone said about having children–“Bring no more children into the world, bring hope.”
I would say–“Don’t rail against suicide, rail against the injustice and unbearable cruelty of our societies.”
“Why would you want a loved one kept alive against his or her will?” The author’s father offers an answer. He seems grateful that his own suicide attempt was thwarted.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience and wisdom here. Much of what you have written resonates with my experience of my son Jake’s death, which while not exactly a suicide, shared some common elements with your family’s story, as it seemed to me as if Jake was caught in a vortex of self-destruction. You described this so well as Chris being “dragged into a deep and enveloping hole that was too dark to see and too powerful to escape.” Well said.
For the past week or so, I have mulled over what you have written. I find great wisdom in your eight lessons. But like Emmeline, I have had to wrestle with your suggestion that suicide and the kind of despair that leads to it are senseless. While some things can be difficult – maybe even impossible – to understand, that does not mean that the difficult-to-understand is senseless. The kind of hopelessness, dread, and shame that can push a person to end his/her life are terribly toxic – a deadly poison to the soul. After my son died, I felt like the only way I could find peace would be to understand the truth of what he had experienced. Maybe that’s misguided, I don’t know. Maybe what our loved ones experienced is a mystery, and I’ll just have to accept the mystery. I sometimes feel that losing Jake has infected me with the same poisonous hopelessness, dread, and shame. Lesson #1 prevents me from getting sucked in too far. But I want to understand the poisoning. And, more important, I want to know – what is the antidote?
What a horrific loss you and your family have endured. You have my heartfelt sympathy.