I am not a purveyor of the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy, and long ago, I abandoned the notion that God never gives us more than we can handle, but I do see something positive resulting from Robin Williams’ tragic death yesterday: people are talking about mental illness and suicide. In status updates, in blog posts, in twitter feeds, people are sharing personal stories about how depression and suicide has affected them or people they love, and I think it’s time for me to share mine.

My father committed suicide almost 28 years ago. He died three weeks after my 17th birthday. I was a senior in high school. On Thursday, I will be the same age as my mother when she was widowed.  When the shocking headline flashed on my computer screen yesterday afternoon, it took my breath away. I gasped, shook my head, and burst into tears – not Robin Williams! Not another brilliant, gifted person gone too soon!

It is hard to describe the devastation I felt when I realized my mother had just discovered my father, dead, in our garage. When I woke up the morning of September 8, 1986, something felt “off.” It was dark, and it felt like the air had been sucked out of the house. I showered and started getting ready for school – I remember putting hot rollers in my hair – and watched my mother walk down the hall, past the guest bedroom where my father had slept the night before. The next thing I remember, my mother was running into the kitchen and dialing 911. There was no screaming or crying – my mother went preternaturally calm in times of crisis – but I instantly knew that my father was gone, and there was nothing any of us could do about it.

The rest of the day comes back to me in bits and pieces: me, telling my sister our father was dead (I wish I had done it with more gentleness and compassion;) my aunt and uncle coming over to our house and then going with me to my maternal grandmother’s and telling her Daddy was gone; waiting outside as friends and family gathered to support and comfort us; our friends, the Glazers, removing my dad’s car from our garage and parking it in front of their house so we didn’t have to see it; our minister, Bill Forbes, coming over and praying with my mom, sister, and me in my parents’ bedroom.

I helped my mother make funeral arrangements and write my father’s obituary. I was sitting with her at our kitchen table when she put her head down and sobbed, knowing her life was irrevocably changed by one solitary act. The night before the funeral, my mom, sister, and I lay awake in the king-sized bed my parents had shared; we got up the next morning, and moved like zombies through the burial, memorial service, and reception, which we had at our house because we couldn’t bear to greet attendees standing in a long line outside the church.

Cards and flowers flooded our house. The doorbell rang incessantly, with neighbors and friends coming to sit with us and mourn the death of someone who was, truly, a stalwart in the community. Everyone shook their heads – how could he do this? Why didn’t he reach out to someone? How could God allow this to happen? I am grateful that the people in our faith community didn’t give us pat answers to these complex questions. We don’t know why he did it – he didn’t leave a note – and we were angry he didn’t ask for help, and though God didn’t mean for this to happen, we knew God wept with us for the loss of a good man.

My friend, Michael Kirby, a Presbyterian minister in Chicago, posted this on Facebook last night:

None of us can know the demons others face. None of us can know how a mind as brilliant as his could not find sufficient light to step into another day.

So instead of knowing…

We will remember the laughter and the tears…we will stand on our desks and declare our dreams…we will pretend to be Scottish nannies to stay near those we love…we will laugh…and we will be light for one another…and we will covenant anew to hold one another in the darkness until the slivers of dawn appear.

In deep sadness, in useless anger, in a troubled compassion…we pray for this genius who is lost to the world far too soon and lift prayers particularly for those whose mourning is not for a distant icon, but a beloved friend, father, husband and family member.

RIP Robin Williams.

Instead of knowing why my dad took his own life, I will remember the laughter and the tears…I will stand on a beach with my niece and nephew and listen to the waves crashing on the shore…I will plant flowers in my garden and see musicals on Broadway…I will pretend to love gin and tonics and make creamed chip beef on Christmas morning…I will appreciate art and music and food and books and reach out to those who are hurting and need someone to walk with them in the darkness…I will pour all the love he would have given me into his two precious grandchildren and hope that is enough to span a 28-year gap.

The next few months will be difficult for Robin Williams’ friends and family. They will ask themselves why they weren’t enough for Robin to overcome the depression that made life unbearable. They will think about the times when something was not quite right and wish they had taken more notice of it. They will wonder what they could have done to ease his pain and ordain a different outcome.

I hope they feel the love and sympathy from Robin’s fans all over the world. I hope they understand that Robin did the best he could until he just couldn’t do it anymore. I know they will get through this, as my family and I did, and someday, the grief won’t be as raw, and they’ll remember him without regrets and recriminations.

I will miss him.

4 thoughts on “Elegy

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I lost my husband to suicide 19 months ago, and my reaction to the news of Robin Williams’ death was very similar to yours. Like you, I am sad but grateful that people are talking about suicide and mental illness. There are still many people who don’t know that depression doesn’t necessarily look like sadness. It can look like laughter, like comic genius, like energy and a stellar work ethic and a million other things. Thank you again for helping to keep the conversation going. I am so very sorry that you lost your father like that.

  2. You have shared such a precious detail – thank you. A friend of mine lost her husband too to suicide and he was a dear sweet man. He was beloved and adored. It is painful to know he couldn’t feel those things and that the society we live in made it difficult for him to get the real community of support that he needed. You are a gifted writer and a strong woman and a compassionate friend.

  3. This has touched me in ways I cannot put to words here. I’m glad you’ve come into my orbit and I’m looking forward to us being better friends.

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