Robin Williams: Lessons from a death

I was sad to learn that comic actor Robin Williams died today, apparently the result of suicide.

In one sense, it’s not all that great a surprise.  It’s amazing to me how many great comedians have also suffered from serious mental issues – depression, paranoia, schizophrenia and others.  It seems almost as if their sense of humor is a counterweight to the condition that would otherwise have dragged them down much sooner.

On the other hand, his death also highlights something that suicidal individuals seldom seem to consider.  Death might appear to offer a solution to one’s own problems, but it creates immense additional problems for those one leaves behind.  Spouse, children, siblings, parents . . . all are left to mourn the void in their lives, and to ask themselves, “Could I have done anything more to help?  Did I miss the signs that might have led me to help him sooner?  Was this in any way my fault?  Did I somehow contribute to his death?”

Those are terribly destructive, negative influences to leave in the lives of others, but almost every suicide with which I’ve had any sort of contact (and as a clergyman and counselor I’ve been involved with the aftermath of more than a few) has had that effect on the survivors.  Frankly, I don’t see how it’s possible to leave any other effect.  Suicide is, at its heart, an intensely self-centered, even selfish act – “I can’t take any more of this”.  Whether one has the right to impose that burden on the others in one’s life is a matter of personal judgment.  I venture to suggest that in almost all cases, one doesn’t.

I speak from some pretty dark experiences of my own.  After the incident that left me permanently partially disabled in 2004, there were times when things were pretty bad.  During those times I came to understand how some people, trapped in incurable illness or unbearable pain with no end in sight, might decide that they couldn’t take it any longer, and that death would be preferable to a future crippled by such a burden.  I never gave in to such thoughts, thanks to my faith and parents who raised me to not allow myself to become trapped in self-pity . . . but there were times when the temptation was very great.

I’m profoundly sorry for Mr. Williams – and for his wife and children – that he gave in to that temptation.  His depression is now at an end.  Their suffering has only just begun.  Pray for his soul, and pray even more for them.



  1. One can live with a little depression, and a little pain. But deep, unremitting depression us the worst pain I've ever experienced, and that comes from someone who has had his pelvis broken and slipped a disc in his lower back. Depression is like the Hell the Christians threaten. Oblivion is tempting to one facing eternal damnation.

    It's a shock to see it happen to "someone who has it all", but motive we never say "someone who has all the good things". Good comedy comes from pain, and great comedy comes from some very dark places indeed. Show me a happy comedian, and I'll show you someone who isn't very funny.


  2. Was it mental, or was it a recent medical problem? No word, yet.

    One news broadcast noted that he kept the fact he lived in Tiburon very quiet, and only those close to him were aware of it. Probably pretty easy to do in the SF Bay area, I suspect. Heck of a lot of famous and/or rich people live within a couple hours drive of SF. They tend to like their privacy, and most around here are willing to extend it to them.

    I didn't realize he was only a year older than me. Last movie I recall him in was "Good Morning, Vietnam" (not positive about the name).

  3. Peter,

    I too just completed a post on Mr. Williams, and you and I thought along very similar lines.

    Thank you and best wishes to you also.

  4. Well said, Peter. The thought of what it do to my loved ones is all that kept me from it, way back when. God brought me to a MUCH better place & kept me around, since. 🙂

  5. Well said Peter.

    I had a good friend take his own life earlier this year. The repercussions from that will last a long, long time. Especially when one considers that it's something his two teenage kids will have to deal with their entire lives.

  6. As one who has had the loss of a dear family member to suicide I say your assessment is 100% correct. Those in our family still carry the scars and haunting sadness from that. It has been a bit over 50 years and it never leaves.

  7. I had a very rough time of it many years ago. I seriously considered going for a one-way walk into the woods. What stopped me was that I had an idea how badly hurt my mother would be if I did that.

    It would have been transferring my pain to her and to other people in my family. That just reeked of cowardice, at least to me.

    My burdens in life are mine to bear. I'm not looking to transfer the weight into anyone else's rucksack.

  8. "Could I have done anything more to help? Did I miss the signs that might have led me to help him sooner? Was this in any way my fault? Did I somehow contribute to his death?"
    And you should not saddle your loved ones with these questions.

  9. Like you, I too spent some time being described as 'probably permanently disabled' being 'lucky' enough to gather significant amounts of intra-body 'piercings' and 'modifications' (cumulatively, courtesy of a number of different conflicts).

    The worst though was a four year period, following the last, which triggered a bought of CRPS in a leg. Now 'that' brought on some unhappy 'considerations'. (As a condition it has, at least over here, the highest rates of suicide of any, higher than depression, cancer or even … being a dentist).

    So why didn't I? Partly it was due to my previous experience as a nurse, seeing thousands of individuals coping stoically, and even happily, with more and worse by far (I attended a 'Wounded Warrior' shoot over your side of the pond, what's a gammy leg as compared to some of those Real Men?). Partly, being both 'stubborn' and ex-mil I refused to give in or 'be beaten'. But most, as you've said – insightful as always, is the effects my 'choice' would have had on those nearest and dearest to me.

    It 'is' inherently a 'selfish' choice (which is perhaps, in conjunction with it being presented as being more 'acceptable' now, is why it is more common now – school kids killing themselves because of failing an exam, being rejected by a date, or other inconsequentials of normal life ….).

    I guess I couldn't face the possibility of when I came to face my judgement of having to explain why other men, women and children were 'better' than me, why I'd 'wimped out' while they coped, and why I’d inflicted suffering on loved ones all for a bit of peace. (Whilst I’ve grown to suspect our Lord may have a sense of humour which will, hopefully, allow some of my youthful. Oh OK and some not-so-youthful, 'exploits' a free pass I suspect He may not view 'that' so leniently).

    Is 'embarrassment' a logical rationale for 'soldiering on' I wonder?

    Still, my sympathies go to his family and friends, and he will be missed for the joy he gave others. May he rest in peace.

  10. Patricia Cornwell is on one of our favorite authors, and SHE asserted, via one of her characters, that suicide is the ultimate "So THERE!"

    I attempted suicide at 11 years of age; I was seriously considering suicide 15 years ago, in fact, my re-establishing contact with the FodGuy was to have someone to say goodbye to – hmmmmm, 15 years on, we're celebrating our 15th anniversary this Thanksgiving.

    I won't say I don't understand the thinking that goes into it, but unlike my mother {who believed those who DON'T commit suicide are cowards}, I happen to believe it takes guts to get up every morning and deal with life – I'm sorry for Robin Williams' family, but his decision was truly selfish ………………

    Semper Fi'

  11. Thoughtful post, Peter.
    Sorry to comment so long after the post, but my Box of Imps has been in the shop: I'm catching up.
    In 2002, I made myself give me a reason to get out of bed every morning, rather than just putting the barrel in my mouth & squeezing. I was demanding; "gotta go to work" wasn't good enough. Guess I found enough reasons. Maybe I didn't want it bad enough. I hurt & wanted it to stop.
    In 2008, I had a motorcycle wreck. It meant I'll never run again, never walk normally again, & pain is & will be a constant companion, yet now I'm a happy man. The difference is that between '02 & '08 I decided that God had put me here, & only He would take me out, in His time. I don't think I have the right to be so presumptious.
    Of such things, maybe, is survival made. I have more weapons than I had in '02; I know I'll never turn one on myself.
    –Tennessee Budd

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