Robin Williams….What Can We Learn

Sad FuneralsUnless you’ve been away on a deserted island, you know that actor/comedian Robin Williams killed himself last Monday in his California home. The sadness most of us felt when we first heard the news was powerful. Here was a man that seemingly had everything–a loving family, a successful career, an artistic gift and the wealth that decades in the entertainment industry had earned him. If he could succumb to a sadness so profound that ending his life seems the only solution, what does that leave for the rest of use, many of us pondered.

That he battled–and largely overcame–addiction was widely known. In the days following Williams’ death, it has also become known that he struggled with depression and that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While such knowledge may make his actions easier to understand, it makes his death no easier to bear.

Gentle Caring Clown

Gentle Caring Clown

While Robin Williams’ tragic death made headlines because of his notoriety, he is far from the only person to take his own life. Someone dies from suicide in the United States every 13.3 minutes. More than 38,000 Americans die by their own hand each year, an average of 105 per day.  That’s more people than live in  Beaufort, South Carolina; Bardstown, Kentucky; Cooperstown, New York or Telluride, Colorado. In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Although people who choose to end their own life may have feel alone at the end, a person who commits suicide leaves, on average, six close family members and/or friends.

Funeral planning and suicide

Suicides are some of the most difficult deaths to deal with, both for family and friends–and also for funeral professionals. Suicides are usually unexpected and family and friends haven’t had time to think about what sort of arrangements the deceased may have wanted. That is especially true when a young person dies, and more than 16 percent of suicides are people under 21 years of age.  In addition, family may still be in shock and denial about their loved one’s death when they meet with the funeral professional. This can hamper decisions like picking a casket, choosing a service and opting for burial or cremation.

Grief On Hold

As funeral directors, we are in a unique position to help families cope with the overwhelming grief and shock that accompanies suicide and help them to start the healing process. Whereas family members and friends may be afraid to talk about a suicide death and allow immediate family members to share their emotions, a good funeral director is non-judgmental and can provide that needed “rock” to lean on during the initial grieving and funeral planning process.

To provide the best support and service for the loved ones of someone who has committed suicide, funeral professionals should treat the death as a normal situation. Friends and family members of someone who died by suicide often feel isolated and alone.  Treating their situation as you would any other funeral can help the family better cope with the death.

Funeral professionals can also provide information about support groups that might be of assistance to survivors of a suicide. Such people might not feel at ease talking to co-workers or friends about how they are feeling. A support group can put them in touch with others who have been through a similar situation.

What can we learn from Robin Williams’ death?

For all of the people who successfully commit suicide each year, more than ten times that number–nearly 400,000–attempt it. What can we learn from Robin Williams’ death? We can learn the signs that indicate a person is considering ending their own life and be vigilant. We can refuse to be smug and secure in our own busy lives and avoid thinking that suicide can’t happen in our tight circle of family and friends–because it can. And, we can hone our listening skills, paying more attention to what people are saying to us and less to what we are going to say next.

According to WedMD, the most common indicators that someone is contemplating suicide include:

  • Frequent talking about death
  • Losing interest in things they once enjoyed
  • Making remarks about their life being hopeless or pointless
  • Putting their affairs in order (e.g. making a will, selling possessions, tying up loose ends)
  • Change in mood from very sad to happy
  • Calling or visiting friends and family to say “goodbye”

And, a few suicide facts:

  • More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have clinical depression or other diagnosable mental illness, according to WedMD.
  • Although women are more likely to have suicidal thoughts than males, men are much more likely to act on those thoughts. More than three-quarters of all suicides in the United States are men.
  • More than one-third of all suicides involve alcohol, anti-depressants and/or opiates.
  • The highest suicide rate is among people between ages 45 and 64 (18%), with Americans 85 years of age and older being the group with the second highest rate of suicide (16.9%.)
  • Suicide rates are higher in the western United States and lower in the large metropolitan areas of the northeast.

Amid the vast outpouring of tributes, opinions and grief about Williams’ death all over the Internet, I was most struck by a simple Facebook post from Kennedy cousin and journalist, Maria Shriver. She posted the reminder for all of us to “Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Well said, Maria. Well said.

Rest in Peace, Robin Williams. You touched many, many more people than you ever knew.

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