Michael Azerrad recalls his time with Kurt Cobain

Nirvana biographer remembers his own struggles

Grief Suicide Loss

If you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there to help! If you prefer, they have a confidential online chat service. Click Here

As we are approaching the 30th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind album release tomorrow I came across an article that a friend linked me through Instagram today. It is an article from Michael Azerrad, the prominent author of “Come as you are: The Story of Nirvana“, named “My Time with Kurt Cobain – Befriending a rock star isn’t necessarily as cool as you’d think – particularly when tragedy happens”.

While reading through his article I had all kinds of emotions coming through because I had lost a friend to suicide, too. There were 2 – 3 paragraphs that I didn’t really like or understand why they ended so abruptly as if there lacks an important part of the story. It felt as Azerrad had written this piece in a very short time, looked up some definitions to briefly connect it to his story but didn’t think it through, or is it just what Azerrad feels about the entire topic? However, he kept me going to read through his entire article…

Lack of Empathy vs. Highly Empathetic

On or about April 5, 1994, Kurt went up to an attic over his garage, took a lot of heroin, and then killed himself with a shotgun. He left a note. Its closing words were “peace, love, empathy.”

it goes on with

The quality of empathy was very important to Kurt; he spoke of it often. […] How much empathy did he have when he hit a man on the head with his guitar during a show in Dallas, in 1991?

But maybe, as Kurt claimed, opiates really did still his misanthropic impulses and help him experience empathy, or something resembling it. Maybe his outspokenness about empathy was actually a passive-aggressive plea for people to have empathy for him. […] In his suicide note, the word “empathy” was underlined twice. […]

Personally I think the topic about empathy is filled with stigmata in those paragraphs. Empathy is so complex. It as well feels like he is describing several mental disorders. The handwriting expert Sheila Lowe once recalled Kurt’s last letter as highly ambivalent.

Azerrad uses very graphic language in his article. Looks like he has never heard of journalistic guidelines when talking about a suicide of a celebrity. He as well goes on describing history of suicides in the Cobain family. Who, how and so on. I thought “Wow!”, this article will be consumed by a lot of people and it will be probably triggering for so many. The purpose of the article felt definitely not like it’s about Suicide Prevention but should be read from the perspective of a Suicide Loss Survivor as me thinks. Azerrad knew Kurt Cobain, I did not.

Warning Signs and the difficult path of Suicide Prevention

Azerrad goes on listing the hallmarks of Cobain exhibiting warning signs:

[…] unsensational fact: Kurt had several clinically established risk factors for suicide, including inhuman levels of professional pressure, chronic and severe physical pain, and a heroin addiction that he just couldn’t seem to shake […] long family history of suicide.

Courtney Love called Azerrad for help in 1993:

One evening, in 1993, I got a panic-stricken call from Courtney, who told me that Kurt had locked himself in a room in their house. He was distraught, she said, and had a gun and was threatening to use it on himself. She was terrified. So was I.

This sounds similar to the events on March 18, 1994 with available significant police papers. It is sad this kind of incident involving a gun happened twice. I recall the one in 1993 might have been in June of that year as Kurt and Courtney went into a fight over drugs / drug dealer if my mind doesn’t trick me.

Azerrad notices the loop of guilt and what-ifs in the aftermath of a friend’s suicide:

” To this day, Townshend probably wonders what might have happened had he gotten through to Kurt. That’s the kind of thing that haunts people who know people who have committed suicide: Is there something I could have done? Twenty-seven years later, I still ask myself that question. I tried, but perhaps I could have—and should have—tried harder. The thing is, although I was in my early thirties, I was still immature and naïve. Maybe I wasn’t so well suited to the task.

You can’t bring somebody back from the dead but everybody could be suited well for the task Azerrad speaks of. Everybody confronted with such a heavy situation can help to prevent it by starting the conversation with the individual who they think is at risk and also try to get help themselves by asking professionals. But it isn’t a textbook situation in every case and it’s nobody’s fault if someone dies by suicide.

Suicide Prevention education hopefully will grow more in the next years. Does Azerrad break some ice with his article? Hopefully so. A very good conversation starter about suicide awareness to be honest.

#BeThe1To How to Help Prevent a Suicide
Courtey Love about receiving help

Suicide Loss

I thought that I was prepared for Kurt’s death, although I didn’t know whether it would come in days or decades. Then, suddenly, it happened. That’s when I found out that you never really can be prepared for such a thing. I don’t remember much from the weeks and months after. I could outwardly function, but inside I felt catatonic and remained grief-stricken for several years. I can’t even imagine what people who were closer to Kurt went through.

These are the most important words Azerrad wrote in his article in my opinion. Until you didn’t experience a sudden loss of a loved one to suicide, you can’t imagine the struggle your are left with with yourself. Suicide loss is different to loss of a person to an accident or a medical condition.

The Ripple Effect of Suicide

“A suicide is like a pebble in a pond. The waves ripple outward.”

Many years ago, my colleague Ken Norton, LICSW, director of NAMI New Hampshire, shared this quote, and it has stuck with me. Visually, when you see a pebble drop into a pond, it’s something small that makes a big impact. 

The first “waves,” close by, are big, and as they move outward, they get smaller and smaller. The reach of the pebble’s waves is much greater than the size of the pebble itself.

When someone dies by suicide, the people impacted most dramatically are those closest to the person who died: family, friends, co-workers, classmates. As a result, the people who interacted regularly with the individual who ended their life will miss the physical presence of that person and typically feel the loss most intimately. 

But, those people represent only the first wave, or the initial level of impact. Those people who are members of an individual’s community, such as members of a faith community; teachers, staff and other students in a school; or service providers, may also be affected by a suicide.

Some of these people may feel the impact in a way that feels similar to those closest to the person who has died. In a situation where the individual has struggled openly with mental health concerns, those who knew of the struggle will feel the pain of the loss—likely wondering if they could have done more.

People who may not have even personally known the individual who died can also be impacted. Like emergency medical personnel, law enforcement, clergy and others who respond and provide support to the family and community, either at the time of death or afterward. 

Ultimately, in the way that a pond is changed because of a pebble, an entire community can be changed by a suicide. According to a 2016 study, it is estimated that 115 people are exposed to a single suicide, with one in five reporting that this experience had a devastating impact or caused a major-life disruption.

Nobody can imagine what the people most close to Kurt Cobain went through. But undoubtedly his death has impacted so much people because of the celebrity status he had. Especially when it comes to fan communities who had identified with Kurt Cobain so much that the topic of copycat suicides suddenly surfaced. A study in 1996 revealed that in April 1994 the suicide rate was much lower in Seattle than the previous year and it was assumed it was because of the Kurt Cobain vigil (and Courtney Love reading Kurt’s letter) and that the media did a better job than they historically had done dealing with suicides.

Shannon Hoon’s reaction

Kurt was murdered

There are the people who tell me with absolute certainty that Kurt was murdered. 

Azerrad obviously had to deal with conspiracy theories surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death in the past. The fringe site of it makes him really sad. Conspiracy theorists are not interested in a fruitful discussion and only want to be right as a coping mechanism for their own problems.

At first, I would patiently explain that Kurt was deeply depressed, repeatedly telegraphed what he was going to do, and that there was no evidence to the contrary. Explaining this time and time again only deepened my sadness, so eventually I learned to just abruptly cut off the conversation.

Thank you, Michael Azerrad!