The recent tragic high profile death of the beloved celebrity Robin Williams has had our whole nation thinking about the issue of suicide and what, if anything, our society can do about addressing the problem. My own son Chris died by suicide in 2001, and as a survivor, I know I feel each new suicide with a profound sorrow and a sense of regret for each life ended too soon.
Robin Williams’ death was particularly painful for me not only because I had delighted in his outlandish behavior and acting skill for decades, but because of a unique connection to Chris. Chris had bipolar disorder, and for people who have never witnessed someone’s mind in a manic state, I have often explained that Chris was behaving like Robin Williams on speed – thoughts and word connections and jokes and plays on words came cascading from Chris with incredible rapidity. Like Robin Williams, it was hard to keep up with his train of thought, but when you did catch up, you realized how brilliant and funny it was, and in Chris’ case how heart wrenching it was to witness a loved one in such a state. The MSNBC news commentator Chris Hayes described observing Williams’ behavior as “like watching a dancing flame.” As my son Chris said about himself, in the midst of an episode he was “Chris squared.”
Chris’ death was the impetus for my ministry in EMIN, but for a number of years I shied away from suicide prevention work. What did I have to offer there? After all, in spite of everything, I had been a total failure in saving my own child’s life.
My daughter Cara has turned her grief to a positive direction and has brought me along with her. She, her husband Heath, and other friends who have experienced the suicide of family and friends have formed a chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in Nashville, Tennessee, and their annual “Out of the Darkness” walk will take place on September 13. This will be their fifth annual walk. Thus far, their chapter has raised over $100,000 for local prevention programs and support for the national foundation.
Cara’s ministry to me has been to draw me in by asking me to give the invocation before each walk begins. Again this year, I will pray, standing before hundreds of walkers whose pain I share, wearing my beads that symbolize that my child died from suicide, and once again, Heath, Cara, my husband Paul, and I will stand there with our arm’s around each other and shed tears as we release our balloons carrying symbolic messages to Chris. Then, the walk will begin in quiet respect for those who have died and with renewed hope that, in some small way, we can help to prevent future acts of suicide and that we can help keep others from ever knowing our pain.
“Out of the Darkness” walks take place all over the country and AFSP chapters work throughout the year to bring suicide into the light of research and understanding. You can find your local chapter and the walk closest to you at www.afsp.org.
You can also help by sharing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255).