Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Robin Williams and My Dad: The Unlikeliest Pair

Depression doesn't discriminate.

If you've been reading this blog over the past several years, you know that in August I post a memorial piece about my father, my original personal connection to suicide, and my most motivating factor in my work in suicide prevention. My father died by suicide when he was 41 years old, after an adulthood spent struggling with bipolar illness and a prior suicide attempt. All these years later, I include these details as they have unfolded in how his story has been told here, and because they are the details of others who have died by suicide, too.

This post was supposed to be about how I'm in a really different place this year. That, inching up on almost two years after forever linking my son to my father through their names, I've made a different sort of peace with my father's absence from my life, as my son has come to take up so much room.

And then, almost exactly to the day and 26 years after my father—a man who, despite his truest wishes, was decidedly everyday—took his own life, one of the world's funniest, most famous, larger-than-life men seems to have done the same thing. And I find I'm not in much of a different place after all.

I'm feeling, acutely, the same push-pull experienced by others who've lost a loved one to suicide: The desire to be able to answer "Why?" and the deep knowledge that there is no answer that will be good enough. The undoneness, the gaping hole that cannot be filled even when your amazing life is at its most full, the restlessness.

Here I am, taken again by surprise. Mourning and in grief.

I have spent a lot of time lately wondering why I am not angry with my father for not living to meet my son. I was eight when my father died, so very early on, I had no illusions he would be a part of my life of milestones. In fact, I have had a "stepfather" (a term that doesn't suffice) who has cheered me on at graduations, walked me down the aisle, met my son on his first day of life. He has been more than enough.

What angers me is that depression doesn't discriminate. That my father and Robin Williams have a shared end.

What gives me hope is that, right now, the world seems on fire about depression. Those living each day in the suicide prevention world are urging those in need to get help, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1.800.273.8255) can be a first step. I'm seeing people who, two days ago, didn't have depression and suicide prevention on their radar, suddenly care—a lot—about it. What can the death of a man who made us laugh teach us? How can we make these memories for blessings? How can we be the light in the darkness?

Many of us who have lost loved ones to suicide work in some capacity to prevent other deaths by suicide. Often, it feels like the story of the starfish, gently tossing a lifeline to a struggling creature, hoping that each one really does count. Occasionally, it feels like a tsunami, like we're all swept up in a great wave that has the power to destroy us. And sometimes there is the feeling of relief that comes as the wave subsides, when you can stand in the water and see both the horizon and the shore and it is beautiful. At this moment, as it seems like the world is coming together around depression and suicide prevention, my wish is that we are incredibly, undeniably, successful in these pursuits. What more do we have to lose?

Copyright 2014 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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