By Edward Grinnan

When Dying Is Taboo

It’s been more than three years since my brother-in-law Mick took his life. Like Robin Williams, he was brilliant and talented. He never saw the heights of fame that Williams did, but he certainly knew the same depths, the depths of depression and addiction that so many people in this world struggle with hour by hour.  

William Styron wrote an article about his sudden plunge into despair for Guideposts back in 1994. He called depression “a storm in the brain.” A great gale. A tempest. Almost beyond understanding for those who hadn’t faced those roaring winds of the psyche.  

Death is rarely a decision. The exception is suicide and Robin Williams’s death compels us to face a subject few are comfortable discussing. It is the one way of dying that is taboo.

It frightens us because, in truth, everyone has thought about–or “ideated”–suicide. Most people have never come close to killing themselves but knowing we can is a unique quality of being human. People who say they haven’t ever thought about it must not think very much.   

No one commits suicide because he’s bored or just in a very bad mood. It’s because he has hit a wall of intractable emotional pain that he’s lost all hope of getting through…or over or under or around. The pain feels unsurvivable. He is killing the pain as much as he is killing himself. There’s little difference between the two.

Imagine a pain so deep that it can defeat our most primitive imperative: self-preservation. 

Mick’s suicide was not really a surprise. But it was still a shock...with long shockwaves. He didn’t leave a note, just an empty bottle of pills he’d filled that morning, leaving no room for doubt. I wonder if someone had been there–Julee, me, anyone–if it would have made a difference. I guess that’s survivor guilt.

Robin Williams had many friends. How many are asking, “What more could I have done?” Nothing, probably. But the question never really goes away.

In my book, The Promise of Hope, I wrote about my own near-suicide attempt. I sat precariously on a hotel windowsill, one leg inside the room and the other leg dangling over a 21-floor void.

I had a drink in my hand I intended to finish. And another if that’s what it took. Sooner or later I would pass out on that precarious perch. Then it would be fate or physics. I was betting the laws of physics would come through for me. I was through with fate.

The reason I am here writing this today is that divine intervention rudely interrupted.

The psychic gravity that keeps so many unhappy people from destroying themselves is concern for the loved ones left behind. But a desperately depressed person convinces himself in his darkness that he is a burden on those very people: family, friends, colleagues. He sees himself as unlovable, undeserving of love and incapable of receiving it.

Suicide is the loss of love, maybe even the failure of love. The person believes all love is lost, even the love of God, the greatest loss. Without love, I can’t imagine life being livable. Hate is not the destroyer of love. Pain is.  

I grew up down the street from Robin Williams, a few years later. He went to Detroit Country Day School right across the road from my brother’s house. It was kind of a landmark. “Bet ya can’t guess who went to school there, can ya?” I’ll never look at that campus quite the same again. 

We kept Mick’s ashes in a nice box on the bookshelf. Mick loved reading. Even at his most down and out, living on the streets, he would hole up in a library and read. Everything. The librarians in small towns he drifted through feared they couldn’t keep up with his appetite for books.

I would have been fine leaving him there permanently nestled among his beloved books. Then last December when we were up at our little cabin in the Berkshires Julee simply said, “I have to let him go. I have to.” She’d held on so tight all these years. Love can trap us as well as free us.

She’d had his ashes blessed by the Franciscans. It was her birthday.

A few years back Mick had spent Christmas with us in the Berks and said it had been the happiest day of his life, and I know he meant it as true. I had to pretend to tie my boot so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

“Maybe I should move here,” he said, half-jokingly, knowing full well the turmoil that act would inevitably occasion. “Don’t worry,” he laughed. “But someday I’ll come back.”

Now Julee stood beneath an apple tree in the middle of the yard, flinging her brother into the breeze, watching the ashes drift to the ground, a light cold rain soaking them into the earth. Mick had indeed returned.

Edward Grinnan is Editor-in-Chief and Vice President of Guideposts Publications. Edward lives in New York City with two blondes—his wife, Julee, and Golden Retriever, Millie, who has been featured in his blog and popular videos. Edward loves cycling, hiking with Millie at his house in the Berkshire Hills and Wolverines that hail from Michigan.

If you need a little boost of inspiration, pick up a copy of Edward's book The Promise of Hope: How True Stories of Hope and Inspiration Saved My Life and How They Can Transform Yours.

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Your Comments (4)

I think your honesty will continue to help others. I am glad that fate intervened so you could lead the Guideposts ministry.
You tell the truth as difficult as it is and I admire you for that reason.
Thank you. :)

WOW...this calls up so many deep thoughts...When our beloved younger son was battling active psychosis, before the right medication was found that blessedly stabilized his schizophrenia, he once said to me, "I would throw myself down from the overpass to the freeway, but I'd be afraid I would LIVE!" Thankfully, we are far from that now, but the suffering that causes suicide must be so profound,and I think God truly understands!

I was always so quick to judge those who killed themselves. Until, I became suicidal myself. I had everything all planned out. In the very deepest recesses of my soul, I saw no other option. I thought about it all the time. It was as though something had control over me, and I could not shake it off.
It turned out that my suicidal ideations came from a medication I was taking. Because it was a medication that could not be stopped suddenly, I had to wean slowly off of it. Even then, the medication remained in my body for another month. Every day, every hour, every minute even, I had to tell myself that the feelings were not real. It took a great deal of effort and strength not to follow through on my urgings.
Never again will I judge a person who ends their own life.

Thank you all for reading and responding to this blog. Means a lot to me!