Yesterday it was announced that Harry Anderson died. He was an actor, magician, and comedian. He was also one of my biggest crushes growing up. Harry played Judge Harry Stone on the 80s sitcom “Night Court.”
All the announcements online (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, etc.) said “he died at home” in Asheville, N.C., and that he was 65.
‘He died at home’
It’s a phrase we see in a number of obituaries. But what does it really mean? If you read “she died peacefully at home,” it’s often paired with “after a long illness” or possibly a short one. But “died at home” on its own is a different story. It pretty much means one of two things: suicide or drug overdose.
Robin Williams died at home. Marilyn Monroe died at home. Kurt Cobain died at home. Jim Morrison died at home. Elvis died at home. Brittany Murphy, Amy Winehouse, Prince … all died at home.
It’s a euphemism. It’s the “nice” way to dance around the truth. But – especially in the case of a famous person – everyone’s going to find out anyway. TMZ will likely be the first to shout it from the social media rooftops.
Sometimes the writer of the obituary adds in extra words. “She died suddenly at home” or “unexpectedly at home.”
When it means something else
I’m not saying that the phrase always means such dire things. For instance, someone could have unexpectedly died at home for a number of reasons. It could have been a heart issue, aneurysm, or accident.
‘Sleeping with the angels’
Jen Aitkin wrote an excellent article on writing a better obituary. She not only offers good advice, she also addresses the desire many have to soften the blow of death.
“Euphemisms are substitute words used to avoid saying something that makes us feel awkward,” Aitkin says. “Euphemisms to hide ‘dead’ are the grand-daddies of them all. … people are uncomfortable with death. But we can’t sanitize the truth.”
She advises that we shouldn’t try to make grief easier by calling a death “passing on” or “gone with Jesus.”
“Call it what it is and move closer to being at peace with death and dying,” says Aitkin.
Respect the dead
No matter how a person dies, they are dead. We can’t do anything about it. No one wants to think that someone they love either close or from afar could take their own life or destroy it with drugs. These deaths are no more or less painful than any other. We may drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out what we could have done to stop it. “If only I’d seen the signs ….” When someone dies in an accident, though, don’t we also wonder what we could have done to keep it from happening? “If only I’d driven her home that night ….”
Stating your loved one died of an overdose or suicide solidifies the terrible truth. In her mind, life was too much. He wasn’t able to beat his addiction.
In an article on Legacy.com, Liz Perkins shares how she announced the death of her son. “John M. Perkins died on Thursday, May 5, 2011, at Christiana Hospital following a long struggle with addiction.” She knew they was a stigma about it but also knew it was important.
“Some of his friends came up to me and asked why I did (put addiction in the obituary). They asked if I was angry with him. No. I was never angry at him,” Perkins said. “I did it because of his struggle. People needed to know he was a good kid and this just happened to him. Pay attention so it doesn’t happen to your kids.”
The ‘easy way out’
You’ve probably heard this phrase in regards to a suicide. “He took the easy way out.” “He didn’t want to face his troubles.” “He was a coward.” “She didn’t want to take responsibility.” Add in any other glib, sanctimonious remark.
Suicide is not an “easy” anything. It’s not easy to do, and it’s not the “easy” way to deal with things. When someone is contemplating taking their own life, it’s not because it’s a passing thought they latch onto.
“For reasons we don’t fully understand, some people reach such depths of despair and pain that they begin to believe that they would be better off dead,” said Dr. John Campo, the chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. (livescience.com)
Rather than just someone for having suicidal thoughts, learn the warning signs and take them seriously. They literally can be the difference between life and death.
R.I.P. Harry Anderson
Harry, you’re the reason I started writing this. After having a cry over the loss of you and thinking about the joy you brought people for years, “died in his home” struck a nerve. Did you commit suicide? Have a heart attack? Trip over something in the bathroom? Die from an overdose?
While the crushing fact that you are dead is bad enough, I wondered what you had been going through lately or over time. Because, let’s face it, “died at home” often means a person took his own life. The idea of you hurting inside is heartbreaking.
No, I didn’t know you. The closest I got to you was my TV (‘Night Court,” your magic, and ‘It”) and walking by your curiousity shop in New Orleans. But I knew your talent. I laughed a lot because of you. And I hate to think the end of your life was unhappy.
Love and peace to you, Harry the Hat. Thank you for the laughter and the serious, “very special episode of Night Court” monologues you would give. I hope wherever you are, you can see how many people have such wonderful memories of you. Just read that great Twitter feed in the sky.