Vince Neil’s Struggle to Cope With Daughter Skylar’s Death
When Vince Neil’s daughter Skylar died of cancer after months of pain at the age of four in August 1995, he threw himself into a self-destructive phase worse than anything he’d ever done previously.
The singer knew it was the worst thing he’d ever had to deal with, but it came during a legal battle following his split with Motley Crue and also an unpleasant separation from his soon-to-be ex-wife, Skylar’s mother. In the months that followed, he found himself angry and suicidal, and hiding behind alcohol and drugs. His ex even suggested he never managed to deal with it at all.
Neil wrote about the tragedy in the band's 2001 memoir The Dirt, the movie version of which arrived in 2019. He’d just taken part in a pro/celebrity motor race at the Long Beach Grand Prix when he received a phone call from his current wife Sharise saying Skylar had been hospitalized. Doctors had thought she suffered a burst appendix, but the truth was worse.
“Instead, they saw that a cancerous tumor around her abdomen had exploded, spreading cancer all through her body,” Neil recalled, adding that he’d been frightened when he saw her “attached to all those tubes and machines” when she’d “been running circles around my legs trying to make me dizzy” the previous weekend.
Months of torment were to follow. With each surgery doctors found that the cancer was worse than anticipated and too dangerous to fully remove. Parts of most of Skylar’s vital organs were removed in a bid to contain the disease until finally the tumor itself was in a condition to be removed. Neil asked to look at it. “[It] weighed six and a half pounds,” he remembered. “That’s how much Skylar had weighed when she was born. … I had never seen anything like it before: it was the face of evil. It lay spread out in a metal pan, a nacreous mess of shit.”
While attempts to cure her continued, Neil and Sharise found a middle ground as they took turns spending time with their daughter. Even Neil’s new girlfriend Heidi was part of the efforts to keep Skylar’s spirits up. Heidi helped arrange visits from actors dressed as Disney characters, while Neil organized screenings of pre-release kids’ movies. When he realized the ward had only one TV, he bought more sets, along with DVD players, for the other young patients.
“It doesn’t seem like much, but little things can make a whole lot of difference when you’re a kid in the hospital,” he said in his 2010 memoir Tattoos & Tequila.
However, he wasn’t able to cope with the personal anguish. “I would stay at the children’s hospital as long as they’d let me, then I’d drive straight to Moonshadows in Malibu and get liquored up with the regulars until I couldn’t remember my own name,” he said in 2001. “I knew it was wrong to be drinking at this time, but it was the only way I could keep from going completely crazy.”
He recalled returning to the hospital with a giant stuffed panda, only to be met with the news that Skylar’s left kidney had become infected. “That’s all she’s got left,” he told the doctor. “What does this mean?” It meant another surgery – her sixth – leading Neil to ask, “How much more can she take?” The answer was not much. After that operation Skylar fell into a coma.
“Her little body just couldn’t take any more,” he said. “When your body starts to fall apart, there’s no one who can fix the machine. They can only keep it running for a little while longer. And sometimes I wonder whether I did the right thing by keeping Skylar running for so long, keeping her in such pain for five months – one-tenth of her entire life.”
He knew the inevitable end was approaching, and that only made his drinking worse. “I cut the most pathetic figure: a father who just couldn’t deal with the pain of knowing that soon he would have to undergo the worst tragedy that a parent can bear – having to bury his own daughter," he recalled. "I would have been willing to lay down my own life if it would have helped. I had never thought anything like that before – not about my wives, not about my parents, not about anybody. Perhaps that was why I was trying to kill myself with drink, so that somehow I could martyr myself and exchange my suffering for hers.”
When Sharise called to tell Neil to get back to the hospital as soon as he could, he arrived soon after Skylar had died in her sleep on Aug. 15, 1995. “Her eyes had opened with a momentary flash of fear and met her mother’s in search of an answer," he recalled. "‘Don’t be scared, sweetie,’ Sharise had reassured her, squeezing her hand. ‘Go to sleep now. It’s all right.’ And so Skylar slept. In the meantime, I sat in traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway and, for an instant, my heart jumped in my chest. … Afterward, I realized that when the woman that I loved most in the world left, my heart knew it, and for a moment, wanted to catch up with her and join her.”
In The Dirt, Neil wrote about the difficulty of attending the funeral, but in Tattoos & Tequila, he revealed he hadn’t been able to bring himself to be there. “There was no way I could go at that point,” he said.
Meanwhile, he recalled he “added pills” to his drinking as he “blamed himself for Skylar’s death.” “I was confused and fucked up," he noted. "Women, alcohol and golf were my tickets out of Realityville.”
While a number of attempts at rehab failed, he finally faced his feelings after scoring a personal best at golf and querying why he felt so good about it, given the circumstances. “It occurred to me that maybe I really did need a better way to work through my emotions,” he said. “There was a lot of grief inside me, though it didn’t really occur to me then … it would be years before I would realize the toll of a lifetime of strife.”
Instead of trying rehab for substance abuse again, he underwent grief counselling, and that helped him deal with his issues. “I had made it through to the other side,” he said. “The first thing I did when I got out of rehab was visit Skylar’s grave for the first time. … Instead of bursting into tears, I was able to smile as I talked with her and remembered all the things we used to laugh and joke about.”
Sharise also had her say in Tattoos & Tequila, noting that, in their seven years of marriage, Neil had never talked about the 1984 death of Hanoi Rocks drummer Razzle in the car he was driving.
“Vince doesn’t like to deal with emotions like that,” she said. “He doesn’t ever feel things deeply, maybe. He doesn’t let himself. … He would cry when he was in trouble and he wanted you to know he wanted to work stuff out. He showed love and affection, but he didn’t show sadness. He was comfortable with anger.”
In the following years, Neil – who has two older children from a previous marriage – set up the Skylar Neil Foundation to raise funds for children with cancer; to date it’s generated millions of dollars to help with treatment and research. Neil, who’d also hit financial rock-bottom during her illness, settled his differences with Motley Crue, rejoined the band and rekindled his fortunes.
But in the 2010 book, he recalled that “over the agonizing months that my little girl lay dying, I never once heard from any of my former bandmates. … Sure, we were at war, legally speaking, but as far as I was concerned, all our petty squabbles and hissy fits paled in comparison with what I was going through.”
More positively, he referred to the track “Skylar’s Song” on his 1995 solo album Carved in Stone, and the good works of the foundation, as “my daughter’s legacy, my monuments to her memory.”