Another Kennedy Tragedy

When Mary Richardson Kennedy died last week, the story became another sad entry in the ongoing Kennedy family saga of tragic loss. But this entry was particularly dark: The 52-year-old mother of four and estranged wife of RFK, Jr., hung herself in the barn at her Westchester County estate.

The public reaction was one of thinly veiled reproach. Her death seemed like something we wanted to rid ourselves of quickly. Even among friends, talking briefly about it over dinner last week, I detected an aversion to the topic, as if her suicide were too sordid a thing to discuss over field greens and scallops. I knew that air well, having lost a brother to suicide 25 years ago. The topic isn’t something people want to hear much about, and I don’t blame them. But, by not talking about it, the stigma only grows.

Which is why the words of Mary’s best friend yesterday on The Huffington Post struck me as brave. In a eulogy titled “Ode to My Best Friend,” Kerry Kennedy, Mary’s former sister-in-law, gave us the context in which the unthinkable could become real. She wrote:

Like millions of Americans, Mary suffered from depression. She had it for as long as I knew her, and as it reared up in high school, college and beyond, she fought it back, for a day, a week, a month. These last 6 years or more, she fought it as hard as she knew how.

But that disease was not Mary herself. She was deeply Catholic, and she was an angel. And like the archangel Michael, who battled Satan when he tried to take over Heaven, Mary fought back the demons who were trying to invade the Paradise of her very being. She fought with everything she had. And I think God said to her “Mary, you have been my warrior on the front lines for too long, you have fought valiantly, and now I am bringing you home.”

Suicide is unfathomable to people who’ve never experienced depression. And for some who are living with a terminal disease and taking all measures simply to live another day, month, or year — it can seem worse than unfathomable. It can seem unacceptable. In addition, we can’t help but be angry at a mother who would leave four children by her own hand.

But depression is a disease, like cancer, that kills. And the stigma attached to mental illness only worsens its effects. Kerry Kennedy’s brave words challenge that stigma. We should all be so lucky to have such a friend — someone who seeks to understand all that lies within us, no matter how dark.