Today we heard of the death of Robin Williams, the ultra-talented actor loved by virtually everyone. He was our big brother, our father, our neighbor, our teacher. We saw him as someone we might like to invite over for coffee or dinner, and discuss his many roles, his life as a celebrity, and his innate ability to make us all laugh. What we would not like to discuss over meatloaf and mashed potatoes would be his struggles with depression.
It’s hard to talk about- mental illness. It’s not fun to discuss, for sure, and perhaps we feel that if we don’t talk about it, the sadness will eventually go away. It simply doesn’t happen that way. The less we talk, the more the illness takes over. The more we stay silent, the more people will die.
I lost my father to suicide in March of 2001. I was pregnant with my first child, a baby I lost two weeks after my father took his own life. In September of that year, the Twin Towers fell. It was a year of total misery. Not long after, my beloved father-in-law died, and I lost the last dad I would ever know. I wasn’t sure I’d make it through.
For as long as I can remember, my dad had always been ill. The illness wasn’t physical, so it was hard to understand, especially as a young girl. Most of the time I thought my father just didn’t like me very much. There were daily struggles living with my dad; always feeling like I had to tiptoe around our house hoping not to say or do the wrong thing, or praying I wouldn’t forget to do a chore he’d asked me to do. I didn’t realize then that he was desperately struggling to keep himself alive.
Although he died on a chilly day, the sun was shining. I remember looking out the window shortly after hearing he was gone and thinking, how is it that the sun is shining, birds are singing, and people are going on with their lives when I feel like my world has just ended? I was shocked, embarrassed, humiliated, distraught, and full of questions. Who would do such a thing? Who would leave their family? Who would leave me? What am I going to tell people?
I had spoken with my dad just a few days before he died. I told him I was going to have a baby; his first grandchild. As I look back on that conversation, I remember him asking me more than once if I was OK, and if my husband was taking good care of me. “Are you alright? You’re OK, right? Everything is OK?” he asked. I told him I was pregnant, not sick, and that I was just fine. I realize now that he was asking me for permission to go. I had another man who was taking good care of me, so in his mind, it would be fine for him to leave.
I wasn’t fine. I struggled to survive it- his brutal and unbearable death. It was the last thing I thought about each night before I went to sleep and the first thing that hit me like a blow to the gut each morning when I woke. My heart broke every time I thought about how tragically sad his life must have been for him to have wanted to end it that way.
I dreamed about the last few minutes of his life; what it must have been like for him. Did he give his dog a cookie before he locked him out on the back porch? Did he have a glass of whiskey while he wrote the note? Before he walked out the door and leaned against the huge oak tree, gun in hand, did he look at the pictures of my sister and I on the desk? Did he cry? Did it hurt?
He did visit my dreams at night, and I remember this one best: We were in his police car, Billy Joel playing softly in the background, Doublemint gum in the console, and Dad, driving at least thirty miles per hour over the posted speed limit.
I was angry. I was yelling at him, “Why would you do this? Why would you leave us? You have two daughters and you left us here to clean up your crap and live with all these unanswered questions. How do you think we feel?”
The car slowed and came to a gradual stop. My dad turned and looked at me, tears in his hazel eyes, and whispered, “How do you think I feel?” I had no words.
I have yet to feel a feeling like the one I felt when I lost him. There have been hard times since, and there has been sadness, but the pain of losing him the way we did was earth-shattering. Sometimes the ache in my heart would stop me from breathing. It physically hurt to move.
The questions were the worst; questions I couldn’t stop asking myself, questions from other people. Why would he do it? What happened to make him want to do it? Why was the suicide note so incredibly impersonal and matter-of-fact? I finally had to learn that I would have to live with never having answers to these questions, so I had to put them all away in a tiny little box in my brain and forget they existed.
Admittedly so, it was hard to live with him. He was mentally ill and it harmed our family greatly. But as I go through life, I realize it’s harder to live without him. He’s never met my boys. He’ll never know that Grant is great at Taekwando, loves video games, at eleven years old has a post-high school reading level and skipped a grade in math. He’ll never see Luc swim the 50 meter freestyle, watch him play baseball, or see how well he can build robots. These are the kinds of things I could brag about to a grandpa, but I can’t and I never will.
The last three words my father said to me were, “I love you.” I truly believe he did. I don’t believe for a second that he took his life to hurt my sister or me. I know that he felt we would be better off without him. He was wrong, but the illness in his brain made him think we would be fine.
We should have talked about it. We should have acknowledged that something was very wrong. I grew up silent, scared, and confused. It doesn’t have to be that way.
After losing my dad, I started a non-profit chapter and worked to create awareness about mental illness. I met with other survivors, like myself, who had lost loved ones to suicide. I heard stories, so many much worse than my story, and I cried. I joined support groups, walked in prevention walks, and I spoke about my father’s death in front of hundreds of strangers.
I’m no longer humiliated or embarrassed. I’ve learned enough to know that although my father pulled the trigger, it was a mental illness that killed him. I have no doubts.
My heart hurts for the family of Robin Williams and for every other family member who has lost someone to suicide. It’s a death like no other, and the path to survival after the fact is paved with almost too many obstacles to tackle.
But I did it. I had to work really hard, but I did it. I feel that I have had two separate lives; the one before my dad took his life and the one after. I sometimes miss the girl who lived less cautiously, trusted more, loved bigger, and who wasn’t afraid. But I’ve learned to love the woman who is raising two wonderful boys and who isn’t afraid to stand up and speak for many of those who cannot.
Still miss him and wish he could watch my boys play. I miss his voice and his bright, wide smile. I miss hearing him sing Billy Joel songs. I miss hearing him talk about his dog.
Every so often, when I hear my boys laughing, I swear I can hear him laughing along. I hope it’s him, and I hope that now, wherever he may be, he is finally at peace.