How one mom talks about Robin Williams and suicide

For the past four decades, Robin Williams was the voice and personality for many beloved on-screen characters in the lives of children and adults. How should parents discuss the actor's death with their children?

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File
Actor-comedian Robin Williams at the 2008 "Idol Gives Back" fundraising special of "American Idol" in Los Angeles. Williams, whose free-form comedy and adept impressions dazzled audiences for decades, has died in an apparent suicide.

When actor Robin Williams apparently took his own life, the loss to children and parents is profound because with him went the voice of the Genie from "Aladdin," penguins Lovelace and Ramon from "Happy Feet," Fender from "Robots," Mrs. Doubtfire, Alan Parish from "Jumanji," Popeye, and Peter Pan.

What the actor may have unwittingly bequeathed to parents is a powerful reason to talk to older kids about suicide.

Law enforcement officials say the Oscar-winning actor and comedian apparently took his own life at his Northern California home Monday, according to The Los Angeles Times.

This is going to engulf every form of media for days to come and you can be sure that many of the characters he made famous will be up on the TV screen and on attractively clickable links online, thus opening the topic of his loss to family discussion.

While Mr. Williams was known early in his career as a hard-living, illegal drug enthusiast and comic, my four sons are all in mourning for the characters they grew up with and the man who was the source of many of their favorite film lines.

Many parents can relate to his character in "Mrs. Doubtfire," which helped families tackle the topic of divorce.

This week, Williams’s final act may be to bring families to the table to discuss suicide with kids.

It took less than 10 minutes from the time of the announcement of William’s death for my son Avery, age 15, to tell me that “Genie’s dead! He killed himself.”

When Quin, age 10, came in a few hours later after seeing the news online he announced, “Fender the crazy robot died! You know, the guy who tells you about ‘The cry of the Deep Doo-Doo bird.’”

My 20-year-old told me, “Peter Pan killed himself.”

That’s when it hit me that many parents will work hard to hide this reality from kids. While that’s probably the most appropriate thing to do with very young children, older kids are probably ready to have this talk.

The problem is trying to explain why someone would purposefully end his or her own life.

I have to say that this year our family has already had to cover that subject when a beautiful, talented, sweet, vivacious, 15-year-old girl we knew committed suicide. Our son Avery’s friend Sarah Peterson, 15, of Norfolk, Va., died Jan. 20, after attempting suicide Jan. 15.

So it’s no small deal that Avery is talking about Williams’s suicide because it took months for him to speak about Sarah's. Tonight as he paces and talks about all the films Williams made and all the ones he won’t be around to make in the future, I wonder how much he’s thinking about Sarah.

Before Sarah’s suicide I would definitely have been inclined to shield my sons from this kind of news.

Sarah’s death has convinced me that taking a hard look at someone like Williams, how much he gave the world and how great the loss is of all his future contributions, is precisely what we should talk to our kids (who are ready) about.

Sarah’s parents have worked very hard to take suicide out of the taboo category because they believe that by removing the stigma kids may be more likely to seek help when they are depressed.

One organization, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, offers this advice to parents trying to explain suicide: "Some people can't think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don't understand that they don't have to feel that way, that they can get help."  

I agree that kids need to understand that you should never think that having a bad day, or week, means you have a bad life – or that the solution is to end your life.

As parents, we need to inform our children that, when they feel they are in such a dark place that they just want their life to end, they should rub the parental lamp so we can shed some light and help them find their way to a safer emotional space.

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