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Why losing an icon like Chris Cornell to suicide raises really complicated emotions

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Chris Cornell was more than a standard-issue rock star. The Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman took his stunning voice and deep lyrics in search of something more meaningful than fame, wealth, and adoration.

His sudden death at 52, hours after Soundgarden played a show in Detroit, would have been heartbreaking in any circumstance. But on Thursday, the county medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. That finding has disturbed Cornell’s wife, who called his death “inexplicable.”

“The family believes that if Chris took his life, he did not know what he was doing, and that drugs or other substances may have affected his actions,” Kirk Pasich, the family’s lawyer, said in a statement.

Regardless of the factors that may have contributed to Cornell’s death, grieving a celebrity that embodied a defining moment in pop culture the grunge era, in Cornell’s case feels too familiar after a year in which we lost the likes of Carrie Fisher, Prince, Alan Rickman, Chuck Berry, and Gene Wilder.

But there’s something about losing an idol to suicide that stirs different emotions: Someone you admired, maybe even loved, may have endured despair so profound that it felt permanent. A suicide death prompts searching questions that few of us feel like we can ever truly answer, and that grief tests us in ways that are hard to describe or explain, even if we didn’t know the person who died. Remember, for example, the outpouring of sorrow over the suicide death of Robin Williams, in 2014.

“It’s a very real loss,” says Michael Anestis, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi whose research focuses on suicide prevention. “The bottom line is, I think folks should try not to think of celebrities as different. He was a person, and they knew this one great part of him. Their struggles are probably more similar to his than they think.”

Indeed, there’s something very common about Cornell’s death, says Anestis: “It’s actually fairly consistent with story of American suicide.”

While suicide rates for men have always been higher, there’s been a sharp increase in the last 20 years among those aged 45 and 64 the demographic of many of Cornell’s fans. Often family members didn’t expect it or didn’t see any warning signs, but Anestis says that’s because men typically stay silent about what they’re feeling, or if they do seek help, don’t share the extent to which they’re having suicidal thoughts or feelings.

Cornell had actually spoken and sang about his troubles, including addiction and depression. He also talked optimistically about getting treatment and recovery. To the public, everything about his journey seemed to suggest a different path than the one he ultimately took, particularly given that he talked about the pain of losing friends and peers like Kurt Cobain and Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley to suicide and overdose.

When Cornell’s good friend, Seattle musician Andy Wood, died of an overdose in 1990, Cornell formed a band in memoriam called Temple of the Dog and wrote a song with the lyrics: “Don’t try to do it / Don’t try to kill your time, oh / Yeah, you might do it / Then you can’t change your mind, oh / You’ve gotta hold on to your time / ‘Till you break through these times of trouble.”

It seemed like that insight permanently anchored Cornell, but such conviction can dim when someone feels suicidal.

“One thing to realize is that when people die by suicide, they don’t make those same calculations,” Anestis says. “They don’t think they’re going to be causing pain. They think they’re going to cause relief for others.”

While some might be tempted to see Cornell’s final moments as evidence that suicide is inevitable for those who struggle mightily, Anestis says that would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

The vast majority of people who think about suicide don’t attempt it. Nine out of 10 people who do make an attempt never go on to die by suicide, according to research. But those statistics can seem less powerful than the tragic passing of an icon who shared his suffering publicly.

For those who relate to Cornell and are already at risk of suicide, Anestis says his death might prompt more than just feelings of sadness or reflection. Instead, it could make them less fearful of suicide because their hero did it, too. Suicidal thoughts or behavior, including making a plan, are signs to reach out for urgent help. And that mindfulness shouldn’t be limited to people who personally affected by Cornell’s death, but their loved ones as well.

“We encourage people to use the occasion of this sad loss to look out for people close to them, especially men, who might be thinking of suicide, Julie Cerel, president of the American Association of Suicidology, said in a statement.

Anestis says that feeling distress or sadness is perfectly reasonable and that someone shouldn’t feel better or worse about their personal response to Cornell’s death. But above all, people should take expressions of suicidal thoughts or behavior seriously, whether in themselves or someone they love.

“If you see a sign of risk,” he says, “risk is there.”

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Lineat 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a listof international resources.

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