Melissa Gilbert couldn’t help gushing after meeting her newborn granddaughter recently. “Everyone say hi to the newest addition to our family,” she shared after the birth of Romy Busfield. “Absolute heaven!”
Family has always been prized by the former Little House on the Prairie star, but as she’s gotten older, Melissa, 58, has become keenly aware of just how precious and fragile life can be. Although she lost her father when was just 11, Melissa has only come to terms with his suicide, which was hidden from her for most of her life, in the past decade. “It’s a very difficult thing to carry,” Melissa admits.
She and her brother Jonathan, 55, were adopted by Paul Gilbert, a comedian and dancer, and his wife, actress Barbara Crane, as babies. The couple split when Melissa was 6, but she has loving memories of Paul. “My father was the most incredibly talented, vivacious, funny, loving, fair person I ever knew,” she says.
When Paul died suddenly in 1976, everyone was told that he had been felled by a stroke in his sleep. Only a small handful of people knew that he had actually committed suicide. “It was a different era,” says a friend. “Suicide wasn’t talked about. Her mother, Barbara, tried to spare her the heartache.”
Melissa discovered the truth many years later after the publication of her 2009 memoir, Prairie Tales. “I think a family member told her,” says the friend. The devastating revelation sent Melissa into an emotional tailspin. “For about six months, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” says Melissa, who felt “soul-crushing pain.”
She confronted her mother, but also hired a detective to uncover what was known about Paul’s death. “Basically what had happened was that he was under the care of the VA — he was a World War II veteran,” Melissa explains. “He was in uncontrolled, excruciating pain and had been threatening suicide. And, so, he shot himself.”
Melissa admits that sadness, anger, grief, and even guilt consumed her for a long time. “I sometimes still wonder why I wasn’t enough to stick around for,” she says, her eyes welling. “I think that’s something that all children whose parents commit suicide feel.”
Today, Melissa has come to terms with her father’s tragic death. “I will choose to honor his decision and his choice. I choose to ‘hear’ him and cherish him and keep his memory safe,” says the actress, who has become an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
Melissa has also learned to accept her mother’s decision to hide the truth from her. “She felt betrayed and was resentful for a long time,” says the friend. “But she eventually came to forgive her mother. She realizes her family wasn’t unique. It’s what a lot of people did back then. Suicide was thought of as weakness, shameful and a stain on the family.”
As Melissa, who recently released Back to the Prairie, a memoir about her life today, spends time with her family, she can’t help but reflect on her father. “My life is, blessedly, in such a different place than his was,” admits Melissa, who is married to actor Timothy Busfield. “I wish, like me, he could have known the unbridled joy that grandchildren bring. I wish, like me, he could have the love of a true life partner. To feel cherished, safe and, most of all, heard.”
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).