This story references suicide, which could distress some readers. Lifeline Network—800-773-8255—offers free emotional counseling 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
When you lose a parent to suicide you always wonder if you’re going to die the same way. I imagine it’s like losing a parent to Alzheimer’s; no matter how hard you try, in the back of your mind you wonder if you’re genetically destined to head down that same slow path. My hardest days with depression and grief give me that very feeling.
It’s an unfortunate brotherhood that binds those who have survived a parent’s suicide. I lost my father to suicide in 2012 and I’m often invited to speak at conferences for survivors. Last year I spoke at the Hope Rising virtual conference, founded by Kevin Hines, one of the only people who has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and lived. Before I gave my talk, I watched a man named Zak share the story of his own father’s suicide; he was part of this brotherhood too. But Zak’s story differed slightly from my own.
Zak’s father was Robin Williams.
Watching Zak Williams speak, I thought to myself, How can this happen? In the early 1990s, my father and I laughed hysterically watching Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, and now I was a speaker at the same conference as his son because we both lost our larger-than-life fathers to suicide.
I felt such a deep connection to him because we both had outgoing, loving fathers whose deaths people couldn’t understand. My father used to sing and dance and carry on, and he never let me see him without his hair done or properly groomed. My father couldn’t be quiet for more than 30 seconds, and he playfully looked for any opportunity to join in the conversation or be silly if he could. My father did an amazing Mrs. Doubtfire impression: the whole dancing-with-the-vacuum schtick and everything.
But Zak’s father was Mrs. Doubtfire. When Zak lost his dad, everyone felt that they’d lost Robin Williams too.
After Zak’s father passed in 2014, I would use Robin as a metaphor when trying to explain to people how to understand my father and his surprising death by suicide. How could this man, who made me sing “Whoop, there it is” to get ice cream, take his own life? But when I brought up Robin Williams’s suicide, they instantly understood what I meant. While my father’s death sounded the alarm through my Portuguese, Catholic family and raised awareness about mental health for the people around me, Robin’s death did that on a global scale. Zak had to share his loss with the world.
After Zak’s talk, I wanted to reach out to him because of what we had in common. But I quickly realized that what I really wanted to say was thank you.
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Before the first time we FaceTimed, I was nervous. This wasn’t the Hollywood moment I had planned on when I was a young kid inspired to move to Los Angeles. This was a connection to a movie star I had never fathomed. Then I realized Zak and I were just human beings who’d lost loved ones, fathers we thought would be there throughout our lives, when we got married and when our children were born. We were just guys who’d lost their dads.
When Zak’s face popped up on my cracked iPhone screen, I have to admit, his resemblance to his father gave me goosebumps. But as he started to speak while laying back on his couch I felt my body relax as if I was speaking to someone I’d always known. Or perhaps it was just the magic of connecting with someone who had a similar life experience. The ultimate big brother, Zak is calm, reserved, and genuine. He shared openly about his addiction, recovery and jumped as quickly as possible to ask, “How can I help you, Addison?”
Neither of us dropped any magnificent truth bombs on each other and there was no hierarchy of loss, just a sense of understanding that dismantled the shyness I usually experience when first meeting someone. We met as advocates, yes, but also as everyday survivors of parental suicide.
We spoke of his being a dad, his upcoming L.A. wedding, and how we could work together to inspire more people to go beyond awareness and take mental health action. I couldn’t help but make one dark joke about loss. I held my breath and waited for his response. He smiled and laughed rather than clamming up like people can tend to do when confronted with an awkward subject.
After our conversation, I was in awe of the path of self-healing he’s forged, how he honors his own journey as he finds a way forward. To Zak, Robin Williams wasn’t just a movie star, he was a human being, and a dad not too different from my own.
A few months later Zak attended a community event I was hosting. He sent shivers down my spine as he answered questions from men around the world and shared so openly in an effort to help others. “I’ve learned I am not broken,” he said. “Despite experiencing traumatic events, I can recover.”
We were not predisposed to die as our fathers did like I feared. No matter what we experience, the key is to accept that recovery is always possible.
There is something wildly comforting and so special about sharing space with somebody who in some way gets what you have lost. There is so much that is said without saying anything at all. So much is honored in each and every nod, and in every laugh at a weird joke that would only make sense to those with similar experiences.
I’ve always laughed when a doctor would ask me whether or not I was thinking about suicide. In my head I knew that anyone who found their father right after his death would think about suicide about 37 times a day.
The loss of my father and the complicated grief that accompanied it, almost led to my own suicide on a rainy summer day years later. On that day, I promised a power greater than me that if I could get through that I would go back for the others. It was in doing that, I got the opportunity to connect with Zak. I didn’t have to ask Zak the questions that most people would want to know, instead, I learned something much greater. The safety and empathy I felt just by being in the presence of a peer was the greatest gift, and it’s the message I want to tell the world: safe spaces lead to safety. I didn’t have to do it alone, and no one else did either.
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