Celebrity suicides in the news can unearth mixed emotions for “everyday” survivors. As a huge fan of the late musician Chris Cornell, I’ve struggled with how to grieve or talk about his death. This is because I am dealing with it from two perspectives – one as the longtime fan who hangs on to memories of concerts and mourns the loss of his work yet to come – and second as someone who has lost a family member to suicide and knows and dreads the pain.
When news of Chris’ passing began to unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of feelings I experienced when Robin Williams died. In both cases, I swirled in a storm of emotions and questions.
- “How could someone so beloved take his own life?”
- “Why now?”
- “Will this untimely death help reduce the stigma of depression in society?”
- “Will this suicide better equip people to spot signs and identify ways to proactively help someone who may be struggling?”
- And, on the most personal level – “I’m not alone. Suicide doesn’t discriminate.”
I want to focus a bit on the first and last points because what happened in the days and weeks after Robin and Chris died introduced a feeling for me that I wouldn’t have expected – that perhaps I was alone in a way.
Let me explain.
“Why?” is a question I’ve wrestled with over the nearly six years since my dad took his life. I have a number of ideas and suspicions, but he didn’t leave us with one specific reason or explanation. I know that others are “fortunate” to at least have this element of closure, perhaps in the form of a note. But, even then, the “why” may not seem rational or make everything better. I’ve reluctantly accepted that with death by suicide, the why may never come for me. What I know in hindsight is that my dad was in the midst of a complex battle with depression and anything else that may have been going on and something inside led him to this answer. That leaves me feeling sad, slightly embarrassed (thanks, stigma) and unsettled. But, the fact is, with a death certificate to back it up, that he unfortunately died by suicide regardless of the path that brought him there. I hate it and that is one reason I pour endless effort into speaking out, writing on this blog and hopefully serving as a source of comfort and support for others.
After the shock of these celebrity deaths sunk in, family members of both public figures began to share their statements and stories. Robin and Chris each battled a life-long fight against respective addictions and tried to balance a life of stardom with normalcy. Each was reported to have taken medications or experienced chemical responses to the diseases or medications in their systems. I found it interesting that each family had a “why” established within days of the deaths.
- Robin’s wife told People magazine, “It was not depression that killed Robin. Depression was one of let’s call it 50 symptoms – and it was a small one.” They largely attributed his suicide to facing early-onset Parkinson’s and dementia.
- Then, there were reports that Chris’ wife was disturbed at inferences that Chris knowingly and intentionally took his life because there is no way he would have hurt his family in this way. Chris’ “suicide” was explained as an accidental response to medication.
This is where I started to feel like perhaps I was alone, which bummed me out on top of feeling sad about their deaths. It sadly says suicide on all of their death certificates. Even though I am sure this was not the intention of either party, what I started to hear as a survivor was, “my loved one didn’t die the way yours did (you’re in a different camp),” or “yours may have had depression which led him to die, but mine wasn’t really affected by it (in a condescending or stigmatizing way).” And, “This was an accident or side effect, he wouldn’t have knowingly done this to our family, but yours did this on purpose.”
Did my dad knowingly do this to our family because he had depression? Did he set out to hurt me? Obviously he didn’t. Did he do this on purpose or was it a side effect of something else? I’ll never know.
I want to clarify that I think it’s perfectly fine for survivors to keep the cause of death private. In fact, I wished I had the ability to say my dad died of another cause and move on. But, it was so public there was no way I could have hid the truth. What was hard for me with the celebrity deaths is that they seemed to dismiss and deny anything related to depression or suicide, possibly missing a wonderful opportunity to help reduce the stigma for “everyday” survivors. Maybe I was hoping these heroes of mine could also be that for me in terms of my suicide loss with their families embracing people like me?
What finally prompted me to write this was a conversation I had during a visit to my hometown last week. I ran into a former neighbor and he candidly asked/told me, “I heard your dad took his life because he learned he had Alzheimer’s.” This is fascinating because shortly after my dad died, another rumor floating around was that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Everyone seemed to be so quick to establish a more acceptable “why” than depression so they could achieve closure and answers. What would be so wrong with the latter? Six years later, I continue to live with the discomfort of not knowing the ultimate truth – but I do know it wasn’t these other diseases.
What the celebrity families chose to share was their why, and that is what worked for them. I respect it, even if it did leave me questioning if my own loss was something they felt their loved ones were “above,” based on the words they used. As celebrities with children, part of this could have occurred because they were pressed relentlessly by the media to give details or because they needed to be able to help own the messaging. I do PR for a living and that is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Another part of it may have been to protect their young children as mamas do. I am one and I can’t even imagine what my response would be. I remind myself that celebrities are no better equipped to deal with the shock of loss and suicide than anyone else. I need to be much better about not comparing my loss, family or grief and just focus on my own situation.
I really, really struggled with how to articulate these emotions because part of me knows they are ridiculous. I am a fan of both of these artists and feel for their families. I am sharing this to reiterate that suicide is complex and there are often no answers, even if it seems like everyone else seems to have one. You are truly not alone. We are all left having to make sense of something that doesn’t make any sense, no matter how you explain it. Having a why doesn’t make it any easier. It’s unfortunate these men are gone (including my dad).