I have a message to share with my colleagues that emerges out of my recent experience. My wife’s father, tragically, took his own life seven short months ago. It was one of those scenarios where we knew he was struggling with anxiety and depression, and yet never in a million years would we have expected that he would have taken his own life.
Since that time, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about suicide ideation, suicide prevention, and suicide survivors. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that in 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available from the CDC) 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. My father-in-law was in the group with the highest suicide rate in the country: adult men ages 45-75.
We can say a lot about the need suicide prevention programs for people of all ages. Though today I want to share a different perspective.
We tend to overlook the survivors of suicide.
For us and our colleagues, we are very familiar with the grieving process and how important it is for people to have a safe place to turn to for comfort and solace. My experience as a husband and son-in-law is that survivors of suicide are forgotten or we don’t know what to do with them. Their grief is so strikingly different than that of other mourners. It is more complicated because it is also layered with trauma, guilt and even shame. As a result, their journeys through a mourning process are often marked by feelings of isolation. They feel insecure or ashamed to share their pain openly because of the stigma of suicide and mental illness. Many often ask “well-intentioned” but hurtful questions such as: “did you see this coming,” “did he show any signs,” “how did he do it” – questions that plague survivors of suicide. Sometimes the isolation is a result of not knowing other survivors who have been through similar storms (it is even more isolating since many keep their pain to themselves).
The US Congress designated the Saturday before the American Thanksgiving as “National Survivors of Suicide Day.” Senator Harry Reid, a survivor of his father’s 1972 suicide, introduced the resolution in the Senate in 1999. This is an opportunity for us to acknowledge survivors’ unique trauma, pain, and grief.
As rabbis, we are in the unique position to reach out and accompany others where they are. I see this as so important because the survivors of suicide in our congregations often don’t feel strong enough or safe enough to enter our communities to seek support.
Before this more personal loss, I, too, have encountered numerous people during my rabbinate who have lost loved ones to suicide. While I have tried to be present for them, I have often found that, for a number of reasons, they did not want or were not ready to engage with me as their rabbi. Reflecting back, I don’t think I was able to appreciate at the time how great aspects of trauma and isolation were to those families. Perhaps it is because mental illness and suicide carry such heavy stigma. Could it be that our survivors need to live with feelings of guilt for not “seeing it,” shame for “missing it,” sadness for the loss, and anger that someone would make such a “choice.”
In 1 Kings 18 and 19, Elijah has a tremendous success in his fight against the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. However, Jezebel is relentless in her opposition to Elijah and threatens to kill him despite his victory. Elijah, in turn, feels defeated. He can’t see how his efforts were valuable and asks God to take his life. (19:4) In verses 5-8, we see that God sends an angel to be present for him, to nourish him, and to help him find his strength to carry on.
I am no expert in trauma, nor in survivorship. But through my personal encounter with them as I journey with my wife as a survivor of suicide, I see that we need more angels in the world who can respond to these survivors as Elijah’s angel did. With that said, I think these angels are present – they are us and our congregants who can step forward, be present, without platitudes or judgment, and accompany our survivors of suicide to safe places in our synagogue communities.
Rabbi Fred Greene serves Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO.