Robin Williams’ death two weeks ago has reminded us all of how devastating deep depression can be and of how thoughts of suicide plague so many individuals. The death of a close friend or loved one—or in this case, a beloved well-known comedian/actor—is never easy, but suicide is particularly difficult to take in and assimilate. I know this firsthand because a dear friend of mine died by his own hand 25 years ago. There is no real consolation for that kind of death. To say that his “time on Earth was complete” sounds hollow and meaningless, even though on one level it may be true. Those left behind are often haunted by feelings of horrified shock, disbelief, and helplessness. In our heartbreak and grief, we feel robbed of years of that person’s living presence in our lives. Such feelings never disappear entirely. We just learn to live with inconsolable loss as part of life.
Robin was a comic genius—unscripted, outrageous, wildly clever and ridiculous at the same time. You couldn’t keep up with his rapid-fire humor: if you laughed out loud, you missed the next hilarious gem. He could take any interviewer’s questions and turn them into a comic riff so packed with spontaneous unrehearsed one-liners that listeners became dizzy from the nonstop barrage of funniness. Robin was the master of on-the-spot improv that took audiences on a rocket ride through his high-speed, ultra-connected mind. Yet, that same mind took him to painful, sad places that he struggled to come back from. Perhaps it was that inner sorrow that informed his deeply moving portrayals of complex characters in films like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting. He was a man of extraordinary, multifaceted talent, loved by millions, yet on the inside, he suffered. The joy he brought to the world was not enough to dissolve his pain.
My friend Michael was multitalented too—an actor, poet, and musician who excelled at all three. He was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. From the moment we met, we were instant friends, as if we’d experienced many lifetimes together and were picking up where we left off: “Oh, there you are….” We worked as proofreaders at the same company for seven years, both of us finding ways to express our creativity elsewhere but making our work life an occasion for constant back-and-forth joking all day long. Michael was just so silly and physically funny—like the schoolroom class clown who makes you laugh uncontrollably. Still, like Robin, Michael had his demons, and ultimately they got the best of him. Perhaps his deep sensitivity, which made him such a great actor and poet, also made him especially vulnerable to inner insecurities, fears, and mental anguish. After his death, we all tried to understand why it had come to that, but ultimately, there were no real answers to the questions we asked ourselves over and over.
Both Robin and Michael ended their lives to end the terrible suffering they were experiencing. Sometimes the pain of living is just unbearable. We have all probably felt that to some degree. Life on this planet is filled with reasons to wish you were elsewhere, and there is no safe harbor or respite from the constant turmoil of a changing world. We are all at risk for toxic overload from global events, coupled with personal challenges or tragedies. We feel the tension in our physical bodies and in our psyches. Yet, hope exists. It quietly appears every time we reach out to a friend or stranger in distress. It becomes stronger when we hold hands and hearts in our families, in our communities, and around the world. In time, perhaps the love we share will shift the balance, and those tottering on the edge will be able to step away from the precipice and return to the center of life. May we all find comfort, compassion, and loving connection in our lives. And may Robin’s and Michael’s sweet souls rest in peace.
*The flower iris is named for the Greek goddess Iris, who was seen as a link between heaven and earth.