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Understanding suicide; compassion for Robin Williams, and whole-person training

Robin Williams and National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Robin Williams and National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Photo courtesy of National Association of Injured & Disabled Workers, used with permission

**Update: Robin's widow has stated that he suffered from the early states of Parkinson's, shedding more light on his death. In addition, the actor's friend, Peter Coyote, who is a Zen Buddhist priest, posted the following remembrance for him, which I would like to leave as the most important share surrounding Robin William's suicide:

"Robin William’s Last Gift

Robin and I were friends. Not intimate, because he was very shy when he was not performing. Still, I spent many birthdays and holidays at his home with Marsha and the children, and he showed up at my 70th birthday to say “Hello” and wound up mesmerizing my relatives with a fifteen minute set that pulverized the audience.

When I heard that he had died, I put my own sorrow aside for a later time. I’m a Zen Buddhist priest and my vows instruct me to try to help others. So this little letter is meant in that spirit.

Normally when you are gifted with a huge talent of some kind, it’s like having a magnificent bicep. People will say, “Wow, that’s fantastic” and they tell you, truthfully, that it can change your life, take you to unimaginable realms. It can and often does. The Zen perspective is a little different. We might say, “Well, that’s a great bicep, you don’t have to do anything to it. Let’s work at bringing the rest of your body up to that level.”

Robin’s gift could be likened to fastest thoroughbred race-horse on earth. It had unbeatable endurance, nimbleness, and a huge heart. However, it had never been fully trained. Sometimes Robin would ride it like a kayaker tearing down white-water, skimming on the edge of control. We would marvel at his courage, his daring, and his brilliance. But at other times, the horse went where he wanted, and Robin could only hang on for dear life.

In the final analysis, what failed Robin was his greatest gift---his imagination. Clutching the horse he could no longer think of a single thing to do to change his life or make himself feel better, and he stepped off the edge of the saddle. Had the horse been trained, it might have reminded him that there is always something we can do. We can take a walk until the feeling passes. We can find someone else suffering and help them, taking the attention off our own. Or, finally, we can learn to muster our courage and simply sit still with what we are thinking are insoluble problems, becoming as intimate with them as we can, facing them until we get over our fear. They may even be insoluble, but that does not mean that there is nothing we can do.

Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven as the wind. He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it. But we would be doing his life and memory a dis-service if we did not extract some wisdom from his choice, which, if we ponder deeply enough, will turn out to be his last gift. He would beg us to pay attention if he could."

News of Robin William's suicide on Monday put a dent of grief into the nonstop broadcasts of war and other violence, and the gap of grief has expanded into days. With it, there has been talk on the Internet, and some of it has been so good that I felt it would benefit to share:

"I remember having Mork suspenders and crying when I watched Dead Poet's Society. I feel much like I did when Phillip Seymour Hoffman died - like a light went out. That's the thing about so many artists, they make you feel more connected to the world. They give you this gift of depth and connection, all the while battling isolation and pain. We have all been filled with despair so big that it takes our breath away but pain, even the deep and relentless kind, has an end if only we can hold on long enough. Everyone tells people to reach out when they're hurting but I think that sort of pain is paralyzing and unfathomable. Before anyone needs to reach out - tell people how much they matter. Don't just tell your parents or your children or spouse. Tell your third grade teacher, the author of a book that changed your life or the guy that makes your morning coffee. When you tell someone they matter you express your gratitude for someone's presence and gifts. What you're really saying is, "I am so grateful you are alive and the world is made better by your presence." Don't wait to tell the world how wonderful someone is at a funeral. Look someone in the eye today and tell them that their example made you a better man or woman, tell them that they gave you hope and helped you to live your best life. Don't be stingy with love and praise and kindness. They are FREE! There is no such thing as too much love. And yes, it may not save anyone, but maybe it will, and if it doesn't then at least they will know that they were deeply loved and you will know that you said it out loud and they heard you. Dear Robin may you rest in peace. I know your soul must have been so tired. Thank you for making be laugh and cry and bringing so much humanity to your work. You will be missed." - Anna Marie Houghtailing

When lights of Robin's stature go out, especially by their own hand, it does something to the whole world of people who have been moved by that individual. It's like a call to attention. The grief, the loss, it forces us to appreciate what we no longer have. Could it be prevented by having appreciated the person more fully in their lives? It's not a sure bet, but it can't hurt.

One thing is certain - when someone chooses to take their own life, (s)he feels out of options. The pain has become intolerable. The peace of death is the only solace that remains in their estimation. It's a very serious decision, and a completely personal one that we are not free to judge.

...I felt compelled to write this article because like any mental illness-related accident or death, there by the grace of God go I. And it’s not only in poor taste to deride a man who by all accounts, was going though severe depression at the time of his death, it’s also just plain wrong. Suicide isn’t “giving up” or “giving in.” Suicide is a terrible decision made by someone whose pain is so great that they can no longer hold it, and feel they have no other option in life but to end it. It’s a decision you can’t take back, and a decision that will affect your friends and family forever. It is not taken lightly.

Losing a person to suicide may feel like a waste. And I think it’s fair to react to it that way, especially in the first hard days of grief. For someone looking in, it does seem like a waste—especially in the case of Williams, who was a brilliantly funny man and a talented actor. But imagine, if you will, feeling so desperate, so desolate, so incredibly sad and hurt that you honestly cannot see a way out. The feelings leading to suicide are the darkest a human mind can fathom. It’s like being shut into a dark tunnel with no point of light to guide your way. You can hear voices on the outside, but the walls are too thick to get in. And feeling like it’s closing in, like there’s no way out—well, suicide, for that person, is a blessed release. Life, however, is never wasted. Williams did things in his life that touched people to their core. It is a sad, sad loss, but it is not a waste.

"Suicide is not a weak decision. It is a decision that takes an incredible amount of strength to make, actually. Someone isn’t weak if they end their life. They are desperate. There is a difference. It’s okay to feel angry at the person for dying. It’s okay to question, to rail against the forces that caused this. But it isn’t weakness. Mental illness isn’t weakness. It’s a disease, a pervasive, sometimes awful disease. The person doesn’t deserve anger and skepticism forever. They deserve compassion. Their family deserves compassion.

Ending a life is incredibly, incredibly tragic. It represents a lost battle with mental illness. In that, it is no different than cancer, or diabetes, or a heart attack. Where it is different is that suicide is a choice. Whether it is the right or wrong choice for that person is solely the business of that person who commits suicide. But for the family left behind, it is devastating.

Don’t rail against Robin Williams, or anyone else, for committing suicide (if indeed, that is the cause of his death). Instead, reach out. Let people know you’re there for them. Find a crisis line in your area to call if you are feeling desperate and like you want to do something you can’t take back. Support the family and friends left behind in the best way you can. Let the people you love know that you love them and that you are thinking about them. Let them know that they are not alone." - Elizabeth Hawksworth "What Depression Isn't"

Reverend Coyote, Ms. Hawksworth, and Ms. Houghtailing said it so well that I'd just be imitating them. Then we have this, from a Jungian expert:

"That is where I would praise him, for what he has managed to do for six+ decades; handle fire, while being made of parchment."- DR. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

I always saw the pain and sensitivity in Robin Williams, because I know that pain and sensitivity too. I am grateful that he held the darkness at bey for so long, and that he succeeded in shedding as much love, light, joy, and heart as he did. He was a giant who shone for us, for decades. Thank you, Mr. Williams. It was an unforgettable lifetime, and you will live on forever in all those whom you touched. Our numbers are vast.

The image accompanying this article has a number for a suicide hotline. Please don't wait to reach out. You are important, you matter, and the world needs you. And if you sense someone in need, reach out. Sometimes a phone call can save a life.

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