In the hubbub following a two-celebrity suicide week, it struck me as odd that so much was said, so many heartfelt messages were tearfully blasted into the ether, and so many hands were wrung over the sudden, unexpected suicides of total strangers.
It struck me as odd because the exact opposite usually happens when a person one knows takes his or her own life. It’s total crickets. Barely a word.
Which begs the question, “Is the suicide of a total stranger sadder or more devastating than the suicide of a friend or family member?” It seems the answer might be yes if that total stranger is famous.
If it seems I have an axe to grind over the excess attention paid to the plight of famous people who kill themselves as compared to the support and attention directed toward the suicides of not-famous folks, it’s because I do.
How was my poor little sister to know that the day she had finally had enough and couldn’t go on any longer would be the same day that Whitney Houston got hopped up on whatever she got hopped up on and drowned in the bathtub. Which was probably more carelessness than suicide on Ms. Houston’s part, but still, you see my point.
Especially when I called person after person to tell them of the tragedy, and I hear, “Oh my God. First Whitney. And now this.”
The first time I was a little annoyed. And annoyance is actually a nice little divertissement from grief. But by the fourth time I heard it, I was ready to scream into the phone, “You never even met Whitney Houston. How is that even comparable?”
Not that I dislike Whitney Houston or anything. I loved to hear her sing. Still do. And I am perfectly good with the fact that her death was more devastating than my sister’s to the people who had never met or heard tell of Angela. But when the people who did know and love Angela put her death on the same level of misfortune as someone they had never even met, it kind of put a chip on my shoulder about the inflated importance of people with fame, and as you can clearly see, I’ve never really gotten over it.
So now that I’ve got that rant out of my system, go ahead and post your sad, tearful messages on Facebook or Instagram the next time a celebrity decides to call it quits. But then, when somebody you know takes their life, don’t say you don’t know what to say. You know exactly what to say, because you’ve said it before. You pick up the phone and tell that person’s nearest and dearest exactly what you said on the Facepage about the stranger who means so much to you. This time, it might actually do somebody some good.
And you might have to deal with that sooner rather than later. When Robin Williams killed himself a few years ago, suicides spiked 10 percent in the four months that followed, so we could very well be in for an avalanche of loss in the next few months after the double-dipper of celebrity suicide last week. It’s unpleasant to think about, but it could happen.
They say suicide runs in families. I heard this in the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s death, and I don’t have to tell you, I find the fact a bit disconcerting for obvious reasons.
Ernest Hemingway always gets trotted out as the example of this sad fact. His father committed suicide long before he did, and he said at the time, he’d probably end up going the same way. Apparently, there is actual research to show you are more likely to kill yourself if a parent has done so. And the younger you were when it happened, the more likely you are to follow in the footsteps. There are at least five suicides in the Hemingway family. Aside from Ernest and his father, three siblings and a granddaughter are among the total. Maybe there are more, if some questionable accidents were not actually accidents.
I will say this. When you’ve seen suicide close to you, and it becomes real and not some hypothetical, unthinkable horror to be quickly dismissed from the mind — but a real part of your life and your history — it’s not so unthinkable. It’s right there in your mind every time grief for your lost loved one kicks in, part of the narrative and not hypothetical at all.
Thinking from this perspective, perhaps drinking oneself to death is no longer a fate to be avoided, but an action plan. Perhaps taking care of oneself medically and emotionally no longer seems to have any value. Perhaps an overdose or hepatitis or even HIV from a dirty needle is not high on one’s list of outcomes to avoid. I firmly believe there are more subtle ways to end one’s life than a bullet through the head or a noose around the neck, and I think people who have experienced suicide close to them are more aware of these possibilities.
Which is another reason this societal bonding with celebrities is harmful. I imagine that 10-percent spike in suicides after Robin Williams’ death came from people who were as invested in his death as they would have been if he were family, regardless of the fact that they didn’t know him. Another very good reason not to do that, as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps, the best reason of all.
Which is not to say that I don’t find the fact Kate Spade hanged herself with a silk scarf more glamorous than horrifying, although I am horrified about feeling that way. But I try not to think about it too much.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.