The death of former child actor Sawyer Sweeten attracted fond but fleeting media coverage. Sawyer, one of the twins on the much loved US television series Everybody Loves Raymond, committed suicide at his family’s Texas home. He was just 19, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday.
The series ran from 1996 to 2005 and has been a repeat staple ever since. But Sawyer, and his real-life twin Sullivan, who played Geoffrey and Michael Barone on the series, discontinued acting when the show ended and largely disappeared from view – except for their adorable television selves, and occasional cast reunions.
Many millions of people around the world watched Sawyer and his brother grow up on television over nine years; the twins were 16-month old babies when they began on the show as original cast members, alongside their TV parents Ray and Debra Barone (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton), sister Ally (real-life sister Madylin) and extended family members played by Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, the late Peter Boyle and Monica Horan.
Sawyer was visiting his family home in Texas, where he shot himself in an upstairs room, while family members were downstairs.
He was no longer the sweet little boy that we saw growing up on television, but a young man, described as “anti-drugs, very quiet and very shy”.
This won’t come as a surprise to viewers of Everybody Loves Raymond. Despite almost a decade on the show, the twins never grew into the precocious child actors we’re used to seeing on US television; on screen they were shy, awkward, ill at ease, fluffing lines and obviously following direction as best they could. They were not gifted child actors. But one suspects that it was precisely because we saw two happy little boys no different from little boys in our own families, rather than the slick performances of child prodigies, that we loved the Barone twins all the more.
What struck me about photos of Sawyer after the show finished in 2009 was that he was still very obviously shy and awkward in the public gaze. Recent private photos released by the family or posted on social media show a teen and young man who seemed doleful, even when smiling for the camera.
This is not a veiled accusation that others should have seen in Sawyer a suicidal young man. They would have seen a “very quiet and very shy” Sawyer being Sawyer. Suicidal tendencies will occasionally be so marked as to be unmistakable, but in most cases they are well disguised.
As is often the case with suicide, the family reports no clues, no warning signs, of Sawyer’s intention. Sawyer’s family will now be experiencing, along with the unbearable loss, the guilt and anguish that they did not discern the clues that may have saved his life. It is a fruitless torment, but understandable.
Madylin Sweeten posted on her Facebook page: “At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”
‘Let your loved ones know how much you care’
Sawyer’s on-screen grandmother, Doris Roberts, also took to social media: “It is with great sadness that I learned the news that Sawyer Sweeten, who played my grandson Geoffrey Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, died at his family’s home in Texas. He was a very sweet young man who will be dearly missed. Make sure your loved ones know how much you care about them, and please check in with them if you haven’t touched base with them for a while. It’s very important to keep in touch.”
These pleas, and others like them posted by heartbroken cast members, friends and family, reflect the anguish of those left behind and the torment that a troubled soul was left unattended to go down the lonely path of self-destruction. And yet it is hard to imagine that Sawyer felt unloved or discarded. Most likely he felt unworthy of that love and undeserving of the care of those closest to him.
Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell, but also, perversely, it is an act of love – a conviction that those closest to you are better off without you. Suicide victims carry unimaginable burdens that they can no longer endure, but very often they also feel themselves to be a burden to others.
The question that inevitably follows a suicide is “Why?”. It is never easy – or even possible – to adequately answer that question. In Sawyer’s case, suicide is a too common occurrence among former child stars. It is hard to imagine the sheer enormity of the transition they must make from child star to anonymous adult.
Professor Charles Figley of Tulane University in New Orleans, a psychologist specialising in trauma and resilience, says of child stars: “They often go from the height of fame to the depth of living without it. It’s more than the rest of us have to face.”
Chicago clinical psychologist Dr John Mayer, who specialises in treating children and adolescents, explains the difficulties posed by the unique circumstances of the child star.
“These kids are kept from the developmental skill building that most kids go through to make them capable adults. Such things as learning about rejection, loss, transitions, and the process of identity development are in limbo while the production companies unknowingly shelter them from those natural struggles a child or teen needs to go through. … They become ill-equipped, often dysfunctional adults. Many of these kids become adults with ‘holes’ in their development, and, at worst, they are emotional and social disasters.” (Quotes from Figley and Mayer reported by Korin Miller, Yahoo!Health, 25 April 2015.)
We can’t know why Sawyer took his own life. There are no reports of a suicide note, but suicide notes can just easily raise more questions than they answer. We ultimately cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life.
A little boy no more
The show’s creator Philip Rosenthal said in a statement: “We knew and loved Sawyer as a little boy. He and his real-life siblings Sullivan and Madylin were such a charming, integral part of our TV family. They never failed to make us laugh, or remind us how we feel about our own children. We are terribly sad to hear this news and our hearts go out to Sawyer’s family.”
We can surmise that being loved as a little boy who does not really exist, and being part of a fictional TV family that no longer exists, can weigh heavily on a sensitive heart.
For me, the death of Sawyer Sweeten is painful because I, too, loved that little boy and his twin brother. But as with any suicide, there are many strands to that sense of loss and grief. Sawyer’s death cut deep, and it wasn’t just as a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond.
My now estranged wife and I used to watch and enjoy the show, all the more so because we had our own twin boys whose age was not so far removed from that of the Barone twins. My boys will be 17 this year, and broken homes being what they are, I don’t see them as often as I would wish, and I can only celebrate their milestones second-hand. My grief at the distance which has been placed between me and my boys, coupled with the nostalgia of having watched the show with my wife, gave added poignancy to Sawyer’s death.
But that’s not my only connection to Sawyer’s lonely death (as all suicides must be).
My youngest brother Tony died by his own hand in 1981: he was 15, and like Sawyer, just a few weeks shy of his birthday. He shot himself in his bedroom – at a time when guns could still be kept in the home – when my parents went for an evening walk and left him home alone watching TV in his room. On their return, they found him dead; he had changed into his pyjama bottoms, the TV was still on. I was called from where I was living nearby and with my parents, in surreal disbelief, knelt over his lifeless body. I will never forget my parents’ quiet cries of anguish. “My son, my darling son,” my mother wept, “Why didn’t you tell us you were so unhappy?”
Tony was a shy, sensitive and very sweet boy. Only days before he died he walked up to my mother in the kitchen, hugged her and told her how much he loved her. One of the last photos taken of Tony was with me, just a few weeks before he died, in which we stood side by side. To this day I cannot look at that photo, guilt stricken that I did not have my arm around him to let him know how he dear he was to me. But in others of the last photos taken of him I can see sadness etched in his face, whereas much earlier photos of him showed a sweet, happy, almost angelic little boy.
What sadness had engulfed my brother in the days or weeks leading to his death? We know that he didn’t like the school he was going to, and my parents had promised he could change school at the end of the year. Reports subsequently surfaced that he may have been bullied at school, which breaks my heart, and you can imagine how my parents felt. We are all left with the forlorn wish that we could have done more.
Having initially acknowledged suicide, my parents quickly went into denial, such was the shame associated with suicide. (The coroner delivered an open verdict, but was of the opinion that in all probability it was suicide.) Even now, the subject is not broached.
Although I do not press my parents on the subject – why would I? – my view is that as a society we must talk about it; we must confront it, and we must do everything we can to understand this scourge which is killing so many of our young people (and of course many others) in our own communities and far beyond. We must do more in our schools, our heath systems, our community organisations, and in the media to raise awareness and understanding of suicide.
Suicides are deaths that can be avoided; but we have to learn how. We must tackle it as we would any other unwanted destructive element of society. Rather than fearing suicide as the last taboo, we should fear inaction on suicide. In the meantime, we can only farewell and remember fondly those who have slipped through our fingers.
Rest in Peace, Sawyer Sweeten. You were loved and you will be missed.
Let me end with your sister’s plea:
“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”
Support and information about suicide prevention is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.