I choked up while watching “Access Hollywood” earlier this month, staring at B-roll of an elderly Joan Rivers in a gaudy fur coat and a rubbery nose, followed by a younger, slimmer version with big ’80s hair and even bigger diamonds. Joan was still in the hospital, not yet dead.
It was a weird reaction for someone I’d never met. But it all felt so personal, like the imminent death of some elderly and beloved aunt. When Joan died a few days later, the lump in my throat gave way to full blown tears.
I’ve spent the last few days trying to process why. Maybe it was Joan’s closeness with her daughter and professional sidekick, Melissa, which in some ways reminds me of my relationship with my mother. Or maybe it was just our shared cultural Jewishness. But now I realize it was something else.
Joan was part of a smallish clique of suicide survivors, and the language she chose to use about her husband Edgar’s suicide was, for me, a salve. I’m also a member of that unfortunate band, my 20-year-old brother having killed himself several years ago. And since National Suicide Prevention Week just ended, it seems an appropriate time to reflect.
Joan could have been like most people and relied on euphemistic or floral language, telling her interviewers, “When Edgar died…” or “When Edgar passed…” But no. In nearly every interview she gave of any significant length, Joan would invariably look right into the camera and start with, “When Edgar committed suicide…” She even wrote a made-for-television movie about it.
Sadly, I never met Joan Rivers, and she’d probably skewer me in an embarrassingly hilarious way for daring to put words in her mouth. So I won’t. I’ll just write that her insistence on naming the cause of death was a relief, and it felt so familiar.
The term “suicide” is shocking. And of course, for Joan, that was part of her schtick. But there’s more. By saying the word out loud and somewhat unexpectedly, the horror and sadness you inflict on others can make you feel better. If complete strangers are so mortified by the act, the rationale goes, it is somehow OK that I’m still reeling from it; it lends credence to your own sadness and struggle.
Then there’s the outrage that you were never given the chance to express. Naming the act out loud is a “screw you” (to use one of Joan’s favorite phrases) to the person who performed such a transgression. The one who committed suicide may no longer be alive, but somehow, seeing strangers’ reactions shows your deceased loved ones the havoc they’ve wreaked — admittedly, a nonsensical, “look-what-you’ve-f*&king-done-to-me” kind of moment.
Then finally, there’s the fact that the acts of death and dying are two completely separate things. Suicide is an act of terrible aggression, and sometimes the act itself can feel even more paramount than the loss. By naming it suicide, you clearly announce that this wasn’t some passive death but rather a blatant violation that forever more severed your life in two: the “before” and the “after.”
Judging by all the tributes clogging airwaves and Internet tubes in recent days, Joan’s comedy was well loved. But for me, it wasn’t just her humor that endeared her to me. It was her inability to be cowed, her blunt honesty dealing with Edgar’s suicide. That will be sorely missed by all of us marooned in this morbid crew.
Julie Satow is a freelance journalist who writes primarily for the Real Estate, Business and Metropolitan sections of The New York Times. Her work can be seen at juliesatow.com and on Twitter @juliesatow. She is a board member of The Jed Foundation.