Mary Schmich. Suicide is not a moral failure.
Two of the best things I’ve ever read about suicide are poems.
They contain no statistics, no quotes from experts, no discussion of antidepressants, none of the sound-bite analysis that has followed Robin Williams’ death. They approach the topic in a quieter language.
One, by the great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, is called “The Suicide’s Room,” and it begins:
I’ll bet you think the room was empty.
Simple, haunting lines. Since I first read them years ago, they’ve been the first words that spring to mind when I hear about someone’s suicide.
I’ll bet you think the room was empty.
The poem goes on to describe the room of the dead man, a place filled with photos, records, books, “a carefree Buddha and a worried Christ,” a notebook that held the addresses of his friends. A richly furnished room.
No way out? But what about the door?
No prospects? The window had other views.
Without ever using the word “why,” the poem asks the question that almost all suicides leave for the living.
It’s the question that Williams left behind when he apparently hanged himself in his bedroom Monday. Explanations and theories were quickly and widely floated:
He suffered from a mood disorder, from addictions, from the perpetually dark soul that is the curse of so many funny people. Added to that, he had money troubles. His new TV show was canceled. At 63, he was a middle-aged white man, a category of American especially vulnerable to suicide.
On the other hand, Williams had a family. Friends. Fans. Remarkable talent. An astonishing body of work that spanned generations.
His room was not empty.
And so, the shock.
All suicides are shocking, even the ones that seem to have an explanation. Suicide runs contrary to the human survival instinct.
Most of us spend our lives trying to stay alive. Most of what we do — eat, drink, sleep, work, go to the doctor and the gym — is done with one primary mission in mind: Don’t die.
I know people who say they have considered killing themselves, but even they, having pulled back from the edge, feel a jolt of dismay when someone, in the jargon of suicide, “goes through with it.”
The shock of Williams’ death, of course, is amplified by his celebrity, and it has provoked an enormous response even beyond the collective sorrow for the passing of a great entertainer.
On Monday, my Facebook feed quickly filled with people talking about their own depression or the mental health struggles of their friends and family, pleading with others to reach out for help.
If you Googled “suicide” on Tuesday — just that one word — the first hits that appeared were pegged to Williams’ death.
One headline: “Robin Williams’ Death Shows Suicide Can Strike at Any Age.”
Another: “Suicide a Risk Even for Beloved Characters Like Williams.”
Some of the response smacks of voyeurism and self-promotion. I received a news release touting a so-called expert who was at the ready to speak about Williams’ psychiatric disorder. I should hurry, the release noted. The expert was booking up fast.
Frankly, I’m not sure how much there is to learn from Williams’ death. He struggled with his mind. He sought help. He got it. It wasn’t enough.
But his death does offer the occasion to repeat what some people still don’t understand: Suicide is a mental health issue, not a moral failure.
Not everyone will be saved from the kind of self-destruction that took Robin Williams, but far more people could be if more of us knew how to read the signs and how to get help.
In some people, depression is long-standing, but the impulse to commit suicide tends to be fleeting. Most of the time, help really does help.
Which brings me to the second poem.
It’s by the American poet Galway Kinnell, who wrote it for a student who was contemplating suicide. In it, he makes the plea for resisting the impulse, for believing in the power of time to change your mind.
It’s called “Wait,” and it begins:
…….Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?…………..