As most of you know by now, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park died by suicide on July 20. His death date was the birthday of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, whom he was close friends with. Chris Cornell also died by suicide. The timing and the similarities between the two deaths has made many people wonder if Chester’s suicide was partly because of the loss of his friend Chris.
In 2009, I lost my good friend Bryan. Not only did he die at the young age of 27, he died by suicide. Not only was it a suicide, he jumped off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – known as one of the scariest bridges in the country. It was one of many deaths of friends I’ve endured, but this one became a turning point in my life.
Several years prior, when I was 19, I became homeless. This occurred rather suddenly and without notice. After this happened, I stayed with my friend Mike Q (who died two years before Bryan), but it was only temporary, since Mike lived in his dad’s basement, and his dad was uncomfortable with some kid he didn’t know staying there for more than a few days. (I couldn’t blame him.) I was basically living in my car, while still going to work at a record store and finishing out my second semester at college. One afternoon, I ran into a friend on campus. He said he heard what I was going through and that I should IM his friend Bryan. I IM’d Bryan on a computer in the school library. He offered to let me stay with him until I could save up enough money to get my own place, no questions asked. I was incredibly grateful.
I didn’t know Bryan well at the time. We both went to the same school in 8th grade, but we had no classes together. However, we were both “alternative” – meaning we dressed rock/punk/goth/raver/skater/grunge/metal/etc, so we knew of each other. When we were 18, we saw each other at shows of local bands in the Baltimore music scene and made small talk.
I wasn’t sure why Bryan would risk having someone he didn’t know well stay with him, but I accepted. Someone could ask why I would stay at the place of someone I hardly knew, but it seemed less of a risk to stay with an acquaintance than continue sleeping in my car.
Bryan and I grew very close. I’m a keyboardist and he’s a guitarist, so we would jam out together. We would talk about philosophy, art, music, and much more. I stayed with him for a few months, until I saved up enough money to live with roommates. We still stayed closely in touch for several years. We would have hours-long phone conversations and would often go to local music shows or dance clubs together. We knew everything going on in each other’s personal lives and the details of who we were dating and how it was going.
The last couple years of Bryan’s life, I didn’t speak to him or see him. He had moved and his phone number changed. I wasn’t sure what happened to him, but I figured I would bump into him again and we would hang out often again. This had happened a few times before, although the periods were much shorter, but this happens with friends sometimes. I didn’t think it to be a big deal.
Then I got the phone call that he had died. I was in shock when I found out he took his own life. In the coming days and weeks, I would talk to his other friends and they all said something along the lines of, “We all knew he was going to kill himself. We just didn’t think it would be so soon. How sad.” Why did they mean they all “knew”? Bryan had never mentioned being suicidal at any time. He never even mentioned that he had been previously suicidal. But he had told people he was less close with. I felt angry that he would tell mere acquaintances, but not one of his closest friends. Then I was mad at myself for being mad about that.
Although I had many friends who died at this point – some of whom were close friends – this one was much different. I felt deep pain with all of them, but there was this large weight on my chest. It felt different than anything I’d felt in my life, including severe anxiety and panic attacks. It was this dreadful feeling. I was having nightmares that I was swimming in the Chesapeake Bay, in the spot where Bryan had died. I saw the large waves next to the bridge. It was so vivid and realistic. Other nights, I dreamt I jumped off the bridge myself, and could feel the g-forces. I could not even sleep to escape my pain. My dreams were absolutely terrifying. I started drinking alone. I never previously had a drinking problem, but I was self medicating. I intentionally drank for the sole purpose of numbing pain.
I couldn’t make sense of what happened, so I did Google searches on why people choose jumping from a bridge as a method of suicide. I ended up watching “The Bridge,” which is a documentary on people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. It wasn’t the same bridge and it didn’t have Bryan, but I felt like maybe it would have some answers. It wasn’t an easy film to watch, but I’m glad that I did. I started feeling a little better.
But then there were the questions about life and death. I have been an atheist since I was about 12 years old, but there were other things I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure whether or not there was an afterlife or ghosts. I didn’t know if dead people were watching over us or helping us out in any way. These were questions I’d thought about a lot before, but never came to an opinion. But now it was bothering me immensely. There was no quick answer. Sure, I could just tell myself whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t fool myself. I needed to truly believe in whatever conclusion I came to. This wasn’t like Googling other questions. I couldn’t get a quick, simple answer.
Around this same time, an acquaintance kept recommending “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins to me. It took him quite a few times before I bothered to read it. After all, I was already an atheist and already knew religion was bunk. Why on Earth did I need to read it? I finally did and it changed my way of thinking. While much of what Dawkins pointed out were things I already considered, he articulated it in such a clear way that it helped me understand my own reasoning better. And he brought up other aspects of religion I hadn’t thought of before. Most importantly, it opened me up to his other work and other skeptical thinkers.
I watched his documentary “The Enemies of Reason,” which made me realize homeopathy was bunk. I started watching and reading other thinkers like Penn Jillette and James Randi. I revisited the work of the late Carl Sagan, whom I had watched as a child. I started to understand the process of skeptical thinking. I had a much better idea of how to spot false information. This was a life-changing experience. I began to realize there were scientific reasons for believing in a naturalistic worldview, which meant I no longer believed in the supernatural. This meant there were no ghosts, spirits, or afterlife.
I ended up mourning the loss of Bryan, Mike Q, and many others all over again. Before I thought I might see them again “on the other side”. Now that I no longer believed that, it really hit me that they were dead. I would never see them again. What had been would be it – forever. But that mourning didn’t last long, maybe only a day or two. While I hadn’t really believed in a literal Heaven or Hell for years, I had previously wondered where in the afterlife they had ended up. Not anymore. I didn’t worry whether or not they were suffering. And I knew that they were still around me, in a sense. The many memories we had and the thoughts we shared still affect me to this day. This is the closest thing we have for living beyond our deaths. The bigger and better the impact we make while we are alive, the longer our thoughts and actions will continue on after we die. This inspired me and invigorated me to make this life – this one life I get – to really count, because it’s my only shot. And besides, even if the truth didn’t make me feel better, it was still reality. That’s better than misbelief.
The immense pain from Bryan’s death led me to really reexamine my own thoughts. It wasn’t easy. I’m only human, so it’s not always fun at first to realize you are wrong on certain beliefs. But in the long run, it’s quite wonderful. I feel like I really turned this tragic situation into something positive. Obviously, I’m not glad he died, and I’d like to think I would have come to these conclusions at some point. But Bryan’s death was going to greatly affect me, whether I wanted it to or not. I’m glad it turned out to be positive.
This is why I can understand if Chester killed himself in part because of Chris Cornell. Had Bryan’s death happened at another point in my life, I might have taken my life as well. I have been suicidal countless times in the past. I eventually got treatment. I haven’t felt suicidal in years. But if I weren’t at that place in my life, and Bryan had died the way he did, I wouldn’t have handled it as well. If I had killed myself, it certainly wouldn’t be his fault. It wouldn’t be because I was “inspired” by Bryan to do it. It would be the immense pain of existing depression added in with the deep pain – that heavy feeling in my chest – and wanting it to end.
I can’t really say for sure why Chester killed himself. Maybe the date of his death was coincidental. Like Chris, Chester did not leave a suicide note, so there’s a lot we can only make educated guesses about. We do know they were close friends and he has mentioned that he was suicidal in the past. He has spoken about being sexually abused when he was a child by an older man. Since both Chester and Chris suffered from mental health issues, perhaps Chris was the only person Chester felt comfortable talking to about certain issues he was dealing with. I know that’s true for me, but I didn’t know Chester or Chris, and can only imagine.
Part of me also wonders if the life of a full-time band is a healthy environment for dealing with mental health issues. This is not to say that no one with mental health issues should tour, but that it might be a hindrance for some people at certain stages. The constant traveling and irregular hours can make it hard to get proper treatment. I don’t know what kind of treatment he got, if any, or if he had a doctor who was available by phone. There’s just a lot I don’t know. But it does make me wonder if my band had “made it” when I was younger, would I have ever taken the time to get the help that I needed? What I do know is that it usually isn’t just one cause or a simple explanation. It’s the perfect storm that makes it go from a thought to an action. Whatever that perfect storm was, it happened for Chester, and I am deeply sorry for him, his family, his friends, and his bandmates.
Many people believe suicide is always selfish. I disagree. While one could argue that there are selfish forms of suicide, such as a suicide bomber, they are extreme cases that aren’t as common. Many people who kill themselves believe the people around them would be better off without them. They are wrong, but mental health problems can make the most logical person believe the irrational.
Linkin Park’s music – especially the Hybrid Theory and Meteora albums – came out at a time when I really needed it. It has helped me and a lot of other people. Chester is dead and we will never see him again, but his work will continue to live on for years to come.