Rabbis Reform Judaism

Suicide Survivors Day – November 21

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.

CCAR Convention Rabbis

Why I am shaving my head – to bring holiness into my life and our world

I have made lots of jokes about growing my hair out (as best as I could) for this fundraiser for St Baldricks Foundation in honor of a little boy who died this year… A boy whom I have never met. I am only acquaintances with his parents – fellow Reform rabbis. As I see women and men start to shave their heads in solidarity with this family and these children who are fighting their cancers, I am truly in awe.

I am in awe not only for the almost two dozen women who are participating in this “36 Shave for the Brave,” not only because there are 100 rabbis signed up for this, not only because they have raised over $528,000… But because there is an energy around people making a difference and doing something that is holy.

These shavees are walking around with hair longer than they ever would have tolerated before: unkept, hard-to-manage, not so appealing… to emphasize their experience in the shave. I am reminded of the Nazir in the Torah who takes on an oath and separates her/himself, takes on additional burdens, in order to designate her/his life to serving God in a unique way. It wasn’t necessary for these people to choose to do this. But they did it anyway. At the end of their service, they shave their hair that was previously consecrated to God. While they were in this temporary status as a Nazir, they could not shave their heads. Here at the annual conference of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing Reform Rabbis in North America, I see a whole host of people consecrating their beloved hair to God, preparing to shave it off in order to fight childhood cancer, to honor the spiritual courage of a family who experienced a loss few of us can understand, to remember a little boy who was a superhero to many, and to bring some holiness to our lives when the chaos embedded in Creation strikes.

May Superman Sam’s memory be an enduring blessing to his family and to all of us. May we reach this goal of $540,000. May people be inspired to do their part – through shaving their heads, making acts of tzedakah, and bringing comfort to a family still in pain. And may we bring holiness into our lives and our world by making a difference and showing God we care.

You can support my shave, read about the back story, or view the live stream on Tuesday night.

Thank you for supporting my modest fundraising efforts and for enabling me to do this holy act.

Rabbi Frederick Greene serves Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, GA. This was originally posted on his blog, Ayekah – Where Are You?