Fell on Black Days: Mourning the Suicide of Chris Cornell

Reflections on suicide, celebrity, and selfishness

Posted May 18, 2017

Public domain
The Suicide, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps (1836)
Source: Public domain

"Whomsoever I've cured, I've sickened now
Whomsoever I've cradled, I've put you down
I'm a search light soul they say
But I can't see it in the night
I'm only faking when I get it right.
Cause I fell on black days
How would I know that this could be my fate?"

— Chris Cornell, "Fell on Black Days"

Today was a black day indeed for fans of Chris Cornell, the 52-year old grunge rock super star and former frontman of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, and Audioslave, who was found dead in his hotel room last night after giving a concert in Detroit. Morning headlines announced that police were investigating the death as a suicide and by day’s end the Wayne County Medical Examiner confirmed that Cornell had hung himself. An explanation as to why Cornell killed himself hasn't come to light, with no evidence as of yet that he was depressed or had relapsed with drug use.

These days, music fans are no strangers to mourning the loss of their icons. Over the past 8 years, we’ve lost Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Prince, and George Michael to the perils of drug addiction. Last year, cancer claimed David Bowie. But by taking his own life, Cornell joins the ranks of Kurt Cobain in conjuring up a more unique set of emotional reactions in those grieving his death.

When death occurs unexpectedly, we often leap over Kubler-Ross’ initial stages of psychological coping – denial and bargaining – moving right into anger and blame. When we lose people to medical illnesses like cancer, we might get angry at otherworldly forces like fate or God. When we lose them to unintentional drug overdoses, we can rail against a depersonalized concept like “addiction” or against the very real problem of prescribers-cum-drug dealers. But when we lose someone to suicide, there’s often no alternative but to point blame at the same person we're mourning.

Some years ago, I was talking to a psychiatrist colleague who had just lost her first patient to suicide. Obviously shaken, she remarked on how selfish her patient’s death seemed to her.

When suicide hurts those left in its wake, it’s hard not to be angered by this perception of selfishness. After all, Cornell leaves behind a wife and three children, just as Cobain left behind a wife and daughter. Weren’t they thinking about their families?

And yet, when one of my jazz heroes, Miles Davis, died in 1991, I remarked to a friend that I was sorry that I never got to hear him play live. My friend scoffed at me, pointing out that it seemed like a selfish thing for me to say.

So who’s being selfish – the person who dies by suicide or those who are left to grieve their passing? Sometimes both, it would seem. Suicide can often be an act of excessive inward focus, losing sight of the outside world and the people in it who suffer most from one’s loss. But at the same time, those affected by the suicide of a loved one must come to terms with the singular suffering of the person that takes their own life, seeking a compassionate understanding of the kind of desperation that might give rise to such an act. Of course, sometimes we never understand it and sometimes simply it can’t be understood.

For many of us, musicians occupy a special place in our hearts because of the power of their songs to invoke a particular emotion, to transport us back to a previous moment in our lives, and to give voice to our innermost thoughts or secret feelings. Sometimes an artist’s stereotypically melancholy temperament is the very thing that touches us, but also dooms him or her to premature extinction. Meanwhile, the hunger of fans can be insatiable, providing an additional burden of celebrity that can be as difficult for the artist to overcome as it is for us to fathom.

As fans grieving the deaths of our icons, the path from anger and sadness to acceptance may depend on remembering that our beloved rock stars don’t owe us anything. What is taken away through their death was not ours in the first place. Musicians aren’t inexhaustible wells. For fans, the music and their words have to be enough.

When you miss somebody
You tell yourself everything will be alright
Try to stand up strong and brave
When all you want to do is lay down and die

How long I've waited for an answer or a sign
Lonely and weary from
The troubled task of trying
To wave goodbye

So now you start to recognize
That every single path you see
Leads to a tear in your eye
So wave goodbye, wave goodbye

-- Chris Cornell, "Wave Goodbye" 

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