I didn't know Robin Williams any more than we can know an actor from his films and interviews. We think we know them because they've touched us, but we don't. I have no little personal story of running into him in the Bay Area (though I always felt a little inexplicable pride that he lived here, too).
Nor do I know his three children. And yet, I think I know a little bit of what they may be feeling this morning, as the sun begins to rise the first day after their father has departed this planet. Their first day waking up to a world that is absent this one, big person. Their first time waking up with a father-sized hole in their hearts.
Eight years ago, early one morning, the phone rang. It was the beginning of the second day of my lazy honeymoon vacation. The sun was just starting to slice through the blinds on the windows, making patterns on the wall behind the bed. The ring jolted me out of sleep.
It was my brother calling to tell me our mother was dead. Dead by her own hand, a single gunshot to the head. She had died in our home, in room that had once been my bedroom so many years before, and had later become a make-shift office. My father was in the living room. She was 49. I was 29.
Loosing someone to suicide is sudden and shocking, and yet in so many ways it has been a long time coming, not unlike a chronic illness.
My mother had suffered from depression and a personality disorder my whole life. Probably her whole life. It was something she battled every single day through exercise, diet, journaling, medication, therapy. She tried everything, and sometimes she tried nothing. Sometimes she couldn't get out of bed for days, weeks, or months. Sometimes she was so happy: so full of energy and kid-like mischief, a twinkle in her eye, a laugh escaping her lips. And sometimes she was consumed by the demons in her head. Sometimes she was so incredibly angry. Angry, paranoid, suspicious, scared. Tears streaking her mascara down her cheeks, face red, eyes flashing one minute and so, so dull and flat the next. Sometimes she hugged and needed to be hugged. Sometimes she was striking anything, anyone, within arm's distance.
Her illness was a wall around her. Most of the time she was so alone. As a child, and even as an adult, I kept my distance, scared. A lot of people thought they knew her, but mostly they knew the persona she created. She was a master of making people see what they wanted to see. An avid bicycler, a talented painter and seamstress, a versital cook, an animal-lover. She was all these things. But at home, her defenses were down, in a puddle at her feet like a dress gratefully -- finally! -- slipped off. And then the depression engulfed her.
After she died, people wanted to comfort me and my brothers. She'll always be in your heart! She loved you so much! She was so proud of you!
But the feelings that come after a person dies by their own choice are mixed and confusing. Traditional grief counseling, as I learned, doesn't cut it. This was not a person who died white-haired after a long, well-lived life. This was not a person who died in a hospital bed after a well-known fight with a body-ravaging illness. This was a person who woke up one day and said, Enough is enough. I can't do this anymore. I'm done.
I felt sad, angry, abandoned, bewildered. But there were also emotions that filled me with guilt: Understanding and relief (for her and for me). She didn't have to suffer anymore. She didn't have to be so angry or tired anymore. She couldn't hurt me anymore. She could simply stop working so incredibly hard to stay alive. The Big Quiet called to her, and she went.
If I could -- if she'd let me -- I'd hug her one last time and tell her, It's ok. I'll be ok. Rest now.
Rest in peace, Grete.
May you have peace, Robin. (Source: Instagram @therobinwilliams)
PS. Depression is very hard to describe. I've battled it a bit myself, mostly as a teen, and know the tantalizing call of the Big Quiet. The best description I've ever read of what depression feels like is here. Please read it. I highly recommend it.