‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert Speaks on Coming to Terms With Her Father’s Tragic Death

by Taylor Cunningham

After decades of struggling with the emotional trauma of losing her father to suicide, Melissa Gilbert has chosen to “cherish him” by helping others from suffering the same fate.

The Little House on the Prairie star is the adopted daughter of comedian and actor Paul Gilbert and his former wife, Barbara Crane. The couple took Gilbert and her brother Jonathan in when the siblings were babies. And together, they gave them a warm and loving home.

Paul and Barbara divorced when Melissa Gilbert was six, but the two were committed to co-parenting. And the young classic TV star spent many years forging a close relationship with Paul, which she still cherishes to this day.

“My father was the most incredibly talented, vivacious, funny, loving, fair person I ever knew,” she told Closer Magazine.

Until She Was an Adult, Melissa Gilbert Did Not Know the Truth Behind her Father’s Death

However, her time with her father was abruptly cut short. In 1976, when Melissa was 11, Paul suddenly died. At the time, Melissa believed that he had suffered a stroke in his sleep. And it would be decades before she learned the truth.

“It was a different era,” a friend of Melissa’s said. “Suicide wasn’t talked about. Her mother, Barbara, tried to spare her the heartache.”

As Melissa Gilbert knew, her father was a World War II veteran. But what she didn’t know was that he was wounded in action and that left with injuries that caused lifelong “excruciating, unrelenting” pain.

Because he was a veteran, he was “under the ‘care’ of a dysfunctional VA health care system.” And she believes they ignored Paul’s problems for too long.

“He’d been threatening suicide for a long time,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “And no one really listened. Most certainly no one helped him. So at about 7:15 am on this day 46 years ago, he shot himself in the head with a .38.”

The Actress Felt ‘Betrayed’ By Her Mother

The now 58-year-old actress learned what happened in 2009 when a family member finally told her the truth, which led her to confront her mother and hire a private detective. And once she came to terms with the suicide, she once again had to mourn the loss with a new sense of “soul-crushing pain.”

“For about six months, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep,” she admitted.

“I sometimes still wonder why I wasn’t enough to stick around for,” she shared with Closer. “I think that’s something that all children whose parents commit suicide feel.”

Melissa Gilbert was eventually able to accept her father’s choice. But she grappled with feeling “betrayed” by her mother, and Melissa resented her for years. Though, with time, she forgave her mother after understanding that people from her generation generally viewed suicide “as weakness.” And he knew that her mother was trying to preserve Paul’s honor for his daughter.

Today, Melissa is a vocal advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. And she dedicates her time to various foundations so that others don’t feel that suicide is the only way to solve their physical or emotional pain.

“I will choose to honor his decision and his choice. I choose to ‘hear’ him and cherish him and keep his memory safe,” the actress added. “If you or someone you know is dealing with suicide or suicidal thoughts or ideation please call the National suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255.”