As I work on the next book in my series, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends, I’m immersed in stories of survivor guilt. Men and women are haunted for years about what they see as their failure to prevent the death of their friend, even if their friend died from suicide. Rarely is there a situation where that guilt is logically justified, but that doesn’t stop it from tearing people apart.
Lately, the news is full of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from an apparent heroin overdose. I’ve heard very little from his friends in terms of survivor guilt. What I have heard should disturb us all.
“He didn’t love his kids enough to stop using.”
“Celebrities think nothing can happen to them.”
“He was weak.”
“He was stupid.”
“He threw away his career.”
And those are the ones I don’t have to bleep out.
It’s not uncommon for those left behind to feel and express anger at the person who died, blaming them for their own death. And sadly, that blame is all too common when it comes to people who are addicts, because of the destruction they leave behind.
A doctor once told me you can become addicted to anything: food, Sudoku, cocaine, gin, caffeine, gambling, sex, video games. A remarkable piece in the NY Times by a man addicted to money was a real eye-opener for a lot of people. Science is making great strides in identifying genetic predispositions that can explain addictive behavior.
There are options for those who have the strength (and sometimes, the money) to commit to fighting addiction: therapy, 12-step programs, in-patient treatment centers. But public opinion is slow to catch up.
Those who are not addicts, especially those who are not close to someone who is, have no idea what it’s like to live with those demons. And yet, they feel smugly self-righteous in criticizing them for behavior that is less than perfect. It’s important that they feel superior to the person who died from what they perceive as a weakness, a character flaw they themselves do not possess. As far as I’m concerned, they have bigger character flaws, but I digress.
I’m writing this from New York, where Hoffman lived and died. He had many friends here, who are reeling from the news that 23 years of being clean and sober did not prevent what happened last week. They’ve lost someone they loved, someone who made a difference in their lives. As is often the case with celebrities, their closest friends are keeping their grief to themselves. That doesn’t mean they might not be angry, too, but they’re not shouting it to the world.
Imagine, though, that you are one of those friends. Maybe you worked with him, maybe you lived in his neighborhood or knew his family. Maybe your kids know his kids. Read those comments I listed above – the self-righteous indignation - and tell me how you feel.
Are members of the public – who only knew him from a distance – justified in condemning him on every social media platform?
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it’s offensive to others. But think about how you’d feel if you were one of Hoffman’s grieving friends, reading the condemnations that fill the internet.
And then, keep your mouth shut.
Because there, but for the grace of God…