Yesterday I wrote a piece entitled, “Robin Williams: Finding the Silver Lining“. I rarely address celebrity deaths on my blog, but I found Williams’ death affected me more than I expected.
This morning I woke up and as I scrolled through my news feed I was surprised to see the details of Robin’s death trumpeted on nearly every news outlet. And again I found myself strangely affected. So I wrote this piece — from my perspective as a funeral director — on why Robin’s death, more than most, needs privacy.
Church funerals often cause a proxemics dilemma. The dilemma comes into play in rare circumstances when the family wants the open casket in the front of church sanctuary.
Sometimes, when the time comes for the family to say their last good-byes before the lid’s closed, they have to do something incredibly intimate and tearful in a public setting, with often a hundred or so onlookers watching as they cover their deceased loved one with the blanket, give a final kiss good-bye and say their last “I love you.”
The way we solve the dilemma is by having the pall bearers come forward and surround the family, creating a human wall so to speak, which allows the family to let all their humanity out before the lid is closed.
Celebrity deaths create the same dilemma. Grief that is meant to be private is watched and consumed by the public. Ideas, thoughts and feelings that are meant to be processed within the context of family and friends are now processed within the context of the public eye.
We, the public, have also been told the manner of Williams’ death (suicide). I’ve been in this business for years and we’ve buried many people who have committed suicide without the public EVER knowing. If the family we were serving wished for it to remain a private topic, it was kept private by us and by the authorities.
Suicide is SO complex. It’s not easy for anyone to understand and so there’s times when privacy is the most psychologically healthy way to approach a death by suicide. Because while suicide isn’t easy to understand, the VERY LAST THING the survivors need to experience is judgment of any kind from others.
This approach from Shawna Morrissey’s blog is one of the best ways to understand suicide. Shawna writes,
Twelve years ago this month, I lost my Uncle Jay to suicide.
At his funeral, Jay’s bishop addressed us. The words he spoke are burned into my mind. He said, “I feel impressed to tell you that Jay spent his life struggling to survive. Suicide was not a choice he made, but rather a choice he happened onto when his pain was greater than his ability to cope.”
This man, who took his own life, was a survivor in every sense of the word.
I imagine that such is true of many who leave the world in this way.
But not everyone is so compassionate towards those who take their own life.
Not only have we been told the manner of Williams’ death, we’ve also been told the cause (hanging).
Why? Why? Why have we been told this?
Suicide through overdose, gunshot wound and carbon monoxide asphyxiation are considerably timid forms of suicide when compared with hanging.
Overdose, gunshot wounds and carbon monoxide are one step methods that sometimes result from impulsive moments of considerable darkness. But, hanging oneself. This is a whole different method of suicide. In many ways, it is the most premeditated form of self-murder. Suicide by hanging is a statement suicide. Suicide by overdose and gunshot is usually an “I just want to end it” method … not so with hanging. And all this gives more reasons why Williams’ death is so complex and complicated.
Grief is sacred.
This sacredness of grief is the reason so many of us hate the Westboro picketers, who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, and any other funeral that can grab them some limelight. We dislike what they’re doing because it transgresses one of the most sacred aspects of both our love and our humanity: the grief that comes from the loss of personal love.
I believe transparency is helpful. But, in times like this, privacy is what Robin’s family and friends need and deserve. And I wish they would have received it. I, for one, hurt for his wife and kids and hope they find the space, compassion and love they so desperately need.
This song is not meant to condone suicide. Rather, it is an attempt to empathize with those who struggle with suicidal thoughts, feeling and actions.
I wrote and sang this song back in 2004 for a class project in my funeral service program. There’s a video that goes along with it (and was a rad amateur vid for 2004), but the video is rather violent. Be forewarned that it not only contains violence, but it also has a number of heavy curse words. If you wish to bypass the video, you can just play the audio via SoundCloud.
The idea of the song is that some people’s lives are so messed up that they hope there’s a place where there is no existence. It was inspired by a friend of mine in high school, who was abused as a child and used drugs to blunt the pain. He was also raised in a Christian family and believed that his actions warranted hell.
His hope was that he could die and there would be neither heaven or hell, but simply nothing … a place where he can’t feel pain, hurt or even happiness.
The song itself starts at the 1 minute, 51 second mark.
A friend of mine disappeared. I mean, left with only the clothes on his back. Borrowed clothes, at that. He left his phone. His wallet. Everything. And he just went away.
Several days passed. Then weeks. Months. Nothing. No word. A friend of ours traveled on foot, looking for him. Others pressed the police. The media. Anyone. To pay attention.
We’d have to wait for the snow to melt. Then he might be found. That’s what they were told.
The snow melted. Heavy rain fell. The city flooded.
A week later someone found him. Sixty miles or so away. His body had traveled all that way. In the river.
Too many details muddy my mind. I don’t want to think about the way they found him. How I was told he looked. That his own father couldn’t identify him.
His death. Announced on the six o’clock news. His Facebook account. Posts deleted until the day before he vanished. Went missing. Even his last two posts deleted. His cries out to us. Cries that most of us didn’t even hear. See. Know.
I’ll die and no one will care. He’d said. No one will come to my funeral.
His ashes spread. A few friends gathered for a quiet memorial. Invitation only.
I couldn’t go.
I tried to honor him by listening to a few songs he liked. By reading his poems. Looking through our messages about religion and art and literature.
Somewhere. Maybe in my heart. Or soul. I don’t really believe he’s gone. I know he is. But I am having a hard time accepting it.
I see a tall guy with black hair. Smoking outside a coffee shop. Walking down the sidewalk with a hood up. I think it might be him until I remember. No. It isn’t him. He’s gone. Dead. Found floating.
I get sick to my stomach.
Wish that I could go back to thinking that he left. Started over. Got himself over to Japan. Reached his dream. With headphones on his ears and new poetry streaming from his mouth.
And. And I wish he knew. I wish he knew that he was loved.
That he knew how broken my heart is.
And how I can’t cry. As much as I want to. I can’t.
And I don’t understand it.
A friend of mine disappeared. He died. And I don’t know how to grieve.
I can’t figure out how to mourn a death I can’t realize.
A death I don’t understand.
Today’s guest post was written by Susie Finkbeiner. Susie is a novelist and short story writer from West Michigan. Her first novel “Paint Chips” released in 2013 and she is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories. When Susie isn’t writing, she is busy as the fiction editor for Burnside Writers Collective as well as Unbound Magazine. Susie is a wife, mother of three, and avid reader. She enjoys time with her family, coffee dates with good friends, and quiet moments to read and write. Website:www.susiefinkbeiner.
Suicide is the great iconoclast. We have a certain view of a person and then that certain view becomes uncertain with the event of suicide, and the whole world seems to shake.
Right now the Kennedy family is having their world shaken… again.
Joseph (1888 – 1969) and Rose (1890 – 1995) Kennedy had nine children. Out of those nine children, Joseph Jr. died when his plane exploded during WWII; Katherine died in a commercial plane crash in 1948; John (JFK) was assassinated in 1963; Robert was assassinated in 1968; Rosemary, who was “mentally ill”, lived an incapacitated life due to a failed frontal lobotomy in 1941; Patricia died an alcoholic in 2006; Senator Edward “Ted” survived a plane crash and major car crash only to succumb to cancer.
Eunice – the founder of “The Special Olympics” – died a peaceful death. And Jean remains the only surviving 2nd generation Kennedy.
The untimely deaths of the Kennedy family have arguably been the most documented deaths of the TV era. First, there was JFK, whose death was recorded with cameras. Then there was the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald … the first murder to ever be recorded on live TV.
Robert’s death caused media frenzy and John Jr.’s plane crash in 1999 garnered the world’s attention.
And on May 16, 2012, Robert Jr.’s estranged wife Mary committed suicide.
Suicide through overdose, gunshot wound and carbon monoxide asphyxiation are considerably timid forms of suicide when compared with the way Mary killed herself.
Overdose, gunshot wounds and carbon monoxide are one step methods that sometimes result from impulsive moments of considerable darkness. But, hanging oneself. This is a whole different method of suicide.
In many ways, it is the most premeditated form of self murder. Unlike other methods, you must find the right place to hang yourself; you have to bring with you the appropriate rope; tie the rope tightly enough to hold your weight and either kick the chair out from under your feet, or pick up your feet off the floor. And yes, I’ve seen the suicides where the deceased opted against a chair and simply lifted their feet.
Suicide by hanging is a statement suicide. It’s a suicide meant for others. Suicide by overdose and gunshot is usually an “I just want to end it” method … not so with hanging.
Mary hung herself. She was making a statement.
In Mary’s case, it would seem that her suicide that was aimed at her husband and was a “this is what you did to me” statement. Her friends and family stated explicitly that her depression coincided with her husband’s marital unfaithfulness and calloused behavior.
Mary’s body was almost late to the funeral service as litigation between Mary’s estranged, but still legal husband and Mary’s siblings fought over custody. As is the law, Robert Jr. is the legal next of kin, even though estranged (he’s currently dating actress Cheryl Hines) and so had the right to do what he wished. And in his selfishness, he did as he wished. Apparently, his well documented egotism wasn’t affected by Mary’s final statement.
Some suicides are the result of mental illness. Others from pure selfishness. And yet others are the last cry for help. A cry that goes unanswered.
Friend, if you see signs in any of your family and friends, listen. And you may find that their hurts and pains are based on real and actual problems. Problems that might be caused by you.
Listen. It just might help save a life.
When Jay Cincotta was a young boy, his Uncle Anthony hung himself — but it was never spoken of. Suicide had a stigma in his Italian family and it was years before Jay even learned how his uncle died. Decades later, Jay’s younger brother, Tom, hung himself. In shock and grief, Jay reflected upon how he’d approach this sensitive topic with his own children, his cousins, his brother’s children and the rest of their friends and family in his eulogy for Tom.
This is the eulogy he delivered at his brother’s funeral:
Thank you all for being here today joining my family in celebrating the life of my little brother.
If it wasn’t for Tom, I wouldn’t be here today. You see even as a young boy, Tom was a passionate entrepreneur. Tom was building a candy empire, and in his effort to protect his inventory, he actually saved my life.
We used to have a spare refrigerator in our garage in New York, and being an imaginative eight year old boy with lots of curiosity and no apparent common sense, I locked myself inside it to see if I could get out.
I learned that the light turns off when you close the door. And you can’t get to the latch from the inside. It was pitch black, cramped, airtight and nearly soundproof. As I kicked and screamed, the air got hot and thin. Sweating, panting and crying, I realized I would die and wondered how long it might be before anyone found my body.
Suddenly, there was a burst of white light. I thought maybe it was heaven. I thought an angel had come for me as I fell to the floor gasping for breath and I heard a voice. But it wasn’t the voice of an angel. It was the voice of my brother, Tom, and the voice said, “Jay, were you eating my candy?”
Tom was always clever and inventive, particularly in the pursuit of hoarding and selling of candy. In middle school he once rigged up an oversized jacket with all these inside pockets where he could hide candy and open it wide in front of potential customers, like a guy with a coat full of cheap watches.
Tom was a great athlete. He could have been a pro bowler. I think he even bowled a perfect game of 300 one time. He ran track. He loved lacrosse and played varsity in high school.
When we shared a dorm room at the University of Maryland in College Park, Tom and some of the other jocks would play lacrosse in the long hall using toilet paper rolls instead of balls to bean unsuspecting nerds enroute to their dorm rooms. Like me.
And once, while recovering from a knee injury, he raced me across the quad. Even on crutches he could still outrun me.
As we got older, we both got married, we both had two kids, we both had good jobs, and for awhile it seemed that everything was going his way.
But then it didn’t. Tom became confused. He made mistakes. His life took a darker turn. My love for him never wavered, but our relationship became terribly strained and for years we hardly saw one another.
But recently there was hope. Tom reached out to me, my brother, Doug, and our parents expressing regret and remorse. As a family reunited, we began planning a new beginning. Two weeks ago today, Tom, Doug and I spent a sunny spring day together after years apart.
Tom confessed to me that he realized his mistakes and that he was sorry for them and I truly believe he was sincere. I cried and told him how happy I was to have my brother back. Tom found the Hagarstown Recovery Mission and submitted an application which was accepted. He was about to start a new life, on the road to full recovery and redemption.
When last I saw Tom alive he was living alone in a small house with boxes piled to the ceiling. But good things were starting to happen.
I had hope. I thought Tom had hope.
One day Tom opened a door just in time and saved my life. Last Saturday I opened the door to his house just a bit too late to save his. There was an old rope tied to the doorknob. And when I opened the door I understood why: Tom had hung himself.
I will spend the rest of my life wondering why.
I dialed 911 and the next few hours were a blur as paramedics, then police came and went and people asked me questions and made me fill out forms. Finally, as a dark unmarked van pulled away I found myself alone in Tom’s front yard.
It was only then that I first noticed that his place backed to a public park. It was another bright beautiful spring day with a parking lot full of SUVs and young boys in team colors were playing lacrosse right behind Tom’s house.
They were young and intense and having fun and at a point in their lives where Tom once stood, where all that mattered was the stick in your hands and the ball and the net and the game and all your life lays out before you with all its promise and ripe possibilities.
And there’s always the danger that life can go horribly wrong when you least expect it. And you find yourself in front of an abandoned house. And a lonely cat needing a new home rubs against your ankles. And you’re left wondering why. Why?
I’m talking to you today about me and Tom because it’s the story I’ve lived. But my story isn’t really about me. Or even Tom. It’s about all of us, the people we love, and the urgency of time.
As life whizzes by it’s so easy to miss the preciousness of the fleeting moments of our lives. To forget how important we are to each other and that we have to love one another and love one another well and with all our hearts and not when it’s too late, but long before it’s too late.
Now. When it matters. When love, friendship and heartfelt concern can make a difference.