How does it feel after losing a loved one to suicide? How to bear the grief, guilt and unanswered questions as we rebuild our lives? I invite you to walk the mourner’s path with me and see where our paths may cross. Please comment on posts or email email@example.com. And check out my book, "I'll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother's Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss" (2017). IF IN CRISIS, PLEASE CALL THE NAT'L SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE AT 800-273-8255.
Normally, I approach the Jewish High Holidays* with
appreciation and zeal for the tradition of life review, repentance, and celebratory
reunion with family and friends. But this is not a normal year. This year, I
don’t need the shofar (ram’s horn) as
a wake-up call to remembrance and reassessment, or a month of preparation for
pouring out my soul; I’ve been doing all that daily since N took his life. This
year, I cringe at the thought of every intense, soul-searching theme of the
holidays, every expectation of spiritual renewal. How can I have a “sweet year”
when in the synagogue, there is a new memorial plaque for our 21-year-old son?
“May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” So say the
prayers and greeting cards for Rosh Hashanah. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, always a bit foreboding, now feels
threatening: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed .
. . who shall live and who shall die, who shall die at his predestined time and
who before his time, who by water and who by fire. . . Who will be at rest and
who will wander . . . who shall be at peace and who tormented. . . But repentance,
prayer and good deeds can avert the severity of the decree.” Our ancestors
recognized the presence of tormented souls and wandering Jews, though they failed to
include “who by their own hand” in the accounting of ways to die. Where is it
written that a beautiful young man full of promise had to reach the end of his
days before they had barely begun? N’s death was not part of any divine plan or
the result of any decree for wrong-doing. I reject that God of judgment (as do
many other Jews). And no amount of atonement can reduce the severity
of this loss.
We raised our son to embrace the Book of Life but somehow, on the verge of a new chapter, N lost hold of the binding—to loved ones, the life force, his
own tender soul. We didn’t know he was no longer on the same
page of assuming that life, despite struggles, would go on. The best I
can do this year is to pray that everyone who loved N—especially the young
people--reaffirm our place in the Book of Life and our ties to one another. And I can seek a compassionate God in the stirring Avinu Malkenu prayer that I have loved since childhood.
My rabbi tells me to be gentle with myself during these High Holidays. Other suicide survivors in my support group say that anticipation is
often worse than a holiday itself and the important thing is to have a plan
for how to spend the day. Both the rabbi and the group remind me to be open to
the healing power of ritual and community. I will try and continue to reflect in this space as I approach the 10 days of repentance.
reflections on Jewish tradition in this blog not as an expert but as a mourner moving
through the Jewish year. I hope some of the themes will resonate with people of
all (or no) faiths.
The first few weeks and months, I was overcome with how much
sorrow there is in the world. It was as if I had suddenly sprung an antenna tuned
to signals I’d barely noticed before. Sorrow flooded in full force from all
directions, just as simple happiness had once surprised me in pregnancy and
early motherhood. Awash in the universals of death or birth, there was no filter
to sentiment or sentimentality. I felt weighed down by the sorrow around me, especially
losses other parents had to endure like a living hell.
There are so many ways to lose a child. The hand-wringing
helplessness of losing young children to disease before they can even enjoy their
childhood. Anguish at the randomness of losing children to violence or accident.
And the living losses that last for years or a lifetime: Losing teens to
addiction, anorexia or depression. Losing adult children in faraway places to
family estrangement. And especially, losing young adults to serious mental
illness, struggling to keep them safe and healthy while subsisting on remnants of
relationship. I’ll never know if that might have been our
family's trial, too, trying to banish the demons that had moved in on our child’s sense
of self, praying they were only temporary.
I was going through this litany of losses with a friend, someone who lost a living brother long ago to mental illness. I was about
to say how much sorrow there was in the world when she said, “I
know, there’s so much love in the world.” She reminded me of the surrogate
brothers who had blessed her life, of the many people who stepped up to support
us since Noah’s death, of the ways families keep hoping for healing.
To sense life only as a world of sorrows is to think like Noah
may have done—to feel only the unbearable pain, tuning out a world of love. There
were so many people who loved our son and hoped to reconnect with him when his
troubles eased. Even when laid low with pain and loss—especially then—we need to
leave ourselves open to the gift of simple happiness, however fleeting.
In my Jewish meditation group this morning, in preparation for the High
Holidays, I tried to focus on forgiveness. The best I could do was to summon a bit of compassion. For two years, as I watched
my son struggle with depression and anxiety, I prayed that he be blessed with rachaman compassion for himself—along with
shalom peace, simcha joy, chesed loving
kindness, and shlemut healing or
wholeness. Now that he is gone, I pray for all those things for myself, my
family, and N’s friends. Compassion feels like an accessible door to the much
more complicated place of forgiveness.
I feel compassion for N’s terrible suffering. But today, exactly 5 months
since his death, my compassion is qualified, more in the head than the heart. I
know he suffered and was too overwhelmed by pain to see another way out; I know
I shouldn’t blame him for this. But I am still too conflicted, too hurt and
angry. To fully experience compassion, I need to open myself up to the
extremity of his pain—and except for a few moments this spring, I have held
back from that. It’s still too scary a place to visit.
In Jewish tradition, we pray every Shabbat, “God, the soul you have given me
is pure.” I used to love to chant that line with a sense of hopefulness. Now I
feel tainted, bursting with the impurities of bitterness, self-pity, remorse. I
cannot yet find a pure, open-hearted compassion for my own poor child, maybe
because I cannot find it for myself.
In yoga meditation the other day, I briefly saw a light behind my eyes in
the shape of hands cupping a human heart. I thought of N and how, at 21, he
didn’t yet know how to cherish or protect his tender soul. Was the image a gift
from him, handing over that soul to me, reminding me of our connection and how
I loved and tried to nurture that part of him? Reminding me of the need to
gently hold my own vulnerability and imperfections in the light as I grieve?
N said this three weeks before he took his life. “What kind
of bullshit is that?” I would later rage. I had never heard such an expression from my sensitive son,
raised by a feminist mom and a gentle dad. "Real men know when they need help," I told him, but he only shook his head.
In the months since his death, as I tried to piece together
the puzzle of his descent into a black hole, I began to see where the “manning
up” may have come from. Older men he admired who urged others to “be a man” when they cried
or despaired. College buddies who thought they were “bulletproof” in the face
of tragedy. A cousin he adored who was “his own man,” living alone in the woods. Macho
movies he seemed to be watching more often. Drafts of screenplay scenes featuring
tough guys so extreme, they were like caricatures. Why should I assume that N was immune to media messages about what it means to be a man? The more vulnerable N
became, the more he believed he had to hang tough.
A psychiatrist writing in the New York Times recalled that as a young man, he had no idea what to
do with sadness. I wonder if the same is true for many young men as they
stumble into their 20s. There is little sense of how sadness fits with the rest of
life, no voice or outlet for it. If they become mired in depression, it seems unstoppable;
there is not enough life experience yet to recognize the pattern of ups and
downs and how moods might be managed. Nor is there a readiness to seek help. And
all this just at the age when they are most at risk for the onset of mental illness.
I was horrified to learn that there is whole class of young
men in Japan who go into hibernation with depression for years, shutting
themselves in their parents’ homes with video games. There are hundreds of
thousands of these hikikomori and they
are at high risk for suicide. A Buddhist monk is trying to lure them back to
life with support services and activities.*
Maybe we have a parallel phenomenon in the U.S., only its
potential for danger goes unrecognized. It’s just boys being boys, retreating
into the man cave, venerating tough guys. My son didn’t play video games, but
he got lost in the dark of that cave, groping for a way to man up—and out.
What can we do to shine a light on this cave and open the way to other paths toward manhood?
*MacFarquhar, L. (2013, June 24). Last call: A Buddhist monk
confronts Japan’s suicide culture. The
I gave Noah my all – everything I had, everything I knew. All
the fun of singing and stories and teddy bear picnics. All the appreciation of
arts, nature, learning, travel, world events. All the ways of understanding and
being with others, all the strong cultural and family roots along with the freedom
to explore beyond. More love than I knew I had. I poured it all into this
child, maybe because he seemed so receptive from an early age, so eager to
engage in conversation. Maybe because he was my last and youngest.
I gave him my all and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to prepare
him for the frightening abyss of young adulthood or to protect him from his own
Of course, I was not the only hand shaping him, nor would I want
to be. So much intervenes between a
parent’s years of nurturing and who a child is as they move into their 20s, only
some of which a parent knows. So much that we cannot fathom intervenes between
the formation of a child’s cells and a parent’s attempt to form his character,
though I still resist this idea.
But within this messy web of influence, parents are the
foundation, the source of core self-esteem and values. We try to give our kids
the grounding they need to be resilient and believe in themselves. That life is
dear and rich and worth living goes without saying; we show this by example. Do
we need to actually say it? Maybe I assumed too much. I imparted many values to
my children, from the political to the personal, but it never occurred to me
that I needed to reinforce the life force. I thought self-preservation was human
We give our children life and love and all the opportunities
we can muster to help them make a life they love. When they throw it all away
in a moment, we lose not only our child and our hopes. We lose our life’s project
as parents, our faith in what we have to give.
There is the date when everything changed: March 19, 2013. The
dates of panic attacks we did not know about till after N’s death. The dates in
the past year that we had no idea would be his last September 3 or January 15,
his last birthday or Chanukah. The dates marked in his calendar for trips never
taken, deadlines for term papers never written, and all the blank dates left in 2013. The months
of struggle that we assumed would heal with time and care, while we went on
with our lives.
I see a random date on an e-mail, a photo, a work document
from before March 19 and my heart sinks: that was then, when we were innocent.
We had no inkling of the disaster that would upend our lives. I yearn to go back
to the most ordinary day from that time and hold onto it. To climb the tower,
like in Back to the Future, and turn back
the clock. I would freeze it in August, 2010, before N’s life was forever
shadowed by a friend’s suicide.
As the Jewish new year approaches, I dread the life review,
repentance, and remembrance that I usually look forward to at this season. For
five months of this year, I had no younger son, no relationship to resolve to
mend. Instead, an unaccountable absence, drop-off into an abyss.
I cringe to write or see the dates 1991 – 2013. The narrow
span of his life still stuns me. The dates that will define N
for the world on his gravestone. The dates I cannot bear to write in his
scrapbook because to do so would mean The End.
The weeks and months unravel since his death. The shock of
the first two months, the chilling reality of the next two months, the struggle
to balance bouts of despair with reclaiming our lives. Our calendars are
already filling with obligations for the fall—days without time for grief work,
memories slipping through my fingers. The prospect of the first anniversary of
his death next March and the unveiling of his gravestone—the final public
marking of his passing. All the painful anniversaries to come.
Dates, relentless reminders. Time moving forward without N