Surviving Suicide

I lost my husband nine months ago. Another woman lost her teenage son. One woman lost her sister. Two women lost their fathers when they were children and didn’t learn until decades later how. These losses were all suicides, and I meet my fellow suicide survivors at a monthly “drop-in” support group, M’kom Shalom: A Place of Peace for Jewish Survivors of a Close One’s Suicide.

One of many bereavement groups offered by the National Jewish Healing Center (all co-led by a rabbi and a social worker), this particular one is led by the Center’s director, Simkha Weintraub, who is both rabbi and social worker. When someone new comes, and we all introduce ourselves again, he shares that he lost an aunt to suicide. Strangely, it turns out a few of us have lost aunts to suicide too.

Aside from the individual therapy most of us are engaged in, there are few other places in our lives where we can come together to talk about the taboo subject of suicide. Together we are trying to put together the puzzle pieces of our losses and our lives. Do we blame ourselves? What is the legacy of suicide? How do we break through what seems like a conspiracy of silence erasing our loved one’s life and death? How at the same time do we protect our privacy? How do we nurture our own healing? How do we cope with the anxiety that our loss provokes for others? How will we memorialize the person we lost?

Because we’re different members of the family in relation to the suicide, we learn the emotional terrain, a vocabulary of sorrow that enlarges our own experience and helps us imagine what our siblings, spouses, children, parents, in-laws, may be going through. I listen with particular interest when a woman says with a still-fresh sense of indignation how she could not understand how her mother could make a huge Passover seder (in her mind, a big party) right after her father’s death. I, mother of three, have just done this myself. I describe my therapist’s image: that a suicide is like an airplane crash where the black box cannot be retrieved.

The term “survivor” has a special meaning in post-twentieth-century Jewish life. In the context of our group it telegraphs a special message when a Holocaust survivor relative tells a participant that this death by suicide is a holocaust. A suicide is like a holocaust in a survivor’s life. Our losses are worthy of that terrible label.

Recently a new book was published, Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African Americans. A friend asks me, why does it make a difference what ethnic or religious group you belong to? I know that every group has its own collective traumas and ways of coping that affect our individual struggles. Our monthly group is a place for our specifically Jewish questions and answers. Suicide challenges our ideas about the value of life and our own resiliency. Whether or not we consider ourselves “religious,” our lives—even sometimes our very ability to get up out of bed every morning—are informed by the cultural meanings we attribute to our activities, our relationships and our sense of place in the world.

There are those of us who are fortunate enough to have been enmeshed in the particularistic Jewish tradition of belonging to synagogue communities, where we count in a minyan, and count on a minyan to be there for us, where people have been taught traditions of mourning and comforting mourners, and where a mantra-like liturgy gives ever-repeating expression to shifting feelings of sadness, hope, fear and gratitude. Sometimes we’re disappointed when we expect too much from our religious community. Sometimes we are angry at God. This Jewish support group gives us a context in which to understand our expectations and comforts, our pains and frustrations.

Some of us, like me, come to this group as queens of wishful thinking, for whom denial is a defense mechanism that helps us to function rather well. I come to be reminded, in doses I can handle, that something terrible really did happen to me and my family, even though I prefer to think of my life as having been—and somehow continuing to be—extraordinarily wonderful and lucky.