My first thought when I heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide was not about him. It was about the children of one of my sisters. They lost their mother in similar circumstances in 2007. Robin Williams’ death also reminded me of my own guilt and regret that I should have done something more to prevent her death.
During the last two years of her life, I was on the phone almost every night with my sister Mary Teresa. After she spent one Christmas with us, I stopped asking her to come visit. I think J.K. Rowling must have known someone bipolar. How else could she describe the Dementors’ ability to suck the life out of you? In an op-ed piece following Williams’ death this week, Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry and bi-polar, writes: “People who are depressed are not always easy to be with, or to communicate with — depression, irritability and hopelessness can be contagious ….”
Late in this period, I did drive over to my sister’s apartment to go with her to visit her attorney. The attorney had negotiated a settlement on Mary’s behalf and, she thought, with Mary’s concurrence. Now, Mary wanted to tear up the agreement and go back to court. I tried my best to persuade Mary to do what was in her best interest. When Mary told me a few days later that she was going to go back on the agreement, we stopped talking with each other every day on the phone. I was angry at her, and she knew I was. She did send a few emails about her plans to see her children around Thanksgiving. Then she committed suicide a few days before Thanksgiving.
In a previous post I mentioned that after Mary T’s death, I spent many evenings obsessively working on the Sudoku books she had given me on the Christmas she visited. I also mentioned that those books are now at the bottom of a box in the back of a closet where they won’t remind me of my own feelings that I should have put aside my anger and talked with Mary in her final weeks, that maybe they wouldn’t have been her final weeks if I had. Rationally I know that at the time I thought that “tough love” might shake her out of the tailspin she had put herself in. Rationally I know that all my words over those last two years meant nothing in the face of her body chemistry. But grief and regret are not rational.
I came across an interesting commentary in the Irish Times on the massive “outpouring of grief” this week over the death of Robin Williams. I was somewhat put off by the author’s stiff-upper-lip tone as he looks down on the masses for feeling sad at Williams’ death. But he did point to an important truth about grief, whether it’s for a family member or a movie star. Grief is about “me.” In the case of a dead celebrity, we grieve the loss of a part of “one’s own life.”
Don’t get me wrong. Grieving and weeping happen naturally in our bodies and are healthy ways to deal with loss. As Ajahn Sumedo notes, however, we start creating obstacles to starting over when we let
… all our memories of the past corrupt, disturb and influence the present moment. … When we do not see the present, we merely project or proliferate into the present all kinds of things from the past. Once we begin to see that, then we can practise this turning to the silence, finding a resting place in … awareness … of the moment. The emotions tend not to want to do that. Emotions have a power that is very convincing; they can convince us that they are real and important
“Loss” is another one of those dangerous nouns. If we pay attention to what we are doing when we experience a loss and then grieve for that loss, we will become aware that we (“I,” “me”) are making this gap between what or who we had in the past and what or who we have now. Becoming aware of how we are making this gap does not remove the gap. It just helps us see that it is not as “real and important” as our emotions would like us to feel. That is, the loss is not some thing that exists independently of us and has power over us. The death of my sister really happened. But what I should have done, would have done, could have done—those are all in my head. The gap between shoulda-woulda-coulda and what happened is, literally, something I make, not some force in the world over which I have no control.