MONTREAL — Elihu Silverman was a young man who appeared to have a stellar future. He was a Harvard graduate and was enrolled in Columbia University’s medical school. He was married, a gifted athlete and musician, a born leader, and considerate by nature. (video)
When Silverman, son of a Hartford, Conn., rabbi, committed suicide at age 23, it made newspaper headlines, but, more significantly, the reverberations are still being felt today by his relatives 58 years later.
His niece, Yehudit Silverman, who was born several years after the tragedy, is still grappling with, not only how such a person could take his own life, but why her family kept silent about what happened.
Silverman, the associate chair of Concordia University’s creative arts therapies program, has made the documentary film The Hidden Face of Suicide, in which she explores her own experience and that of people who have lost loved ones to suicide more recently.
They are members of the Montreal-based self-help group Family Survivors of Suicide. In addition to the shock and grief common to all who are bereaved, they also must cope with the taboo and stigma that still surrounds suicide.
Besides being stunned, Silverman also felt “betrayed” by her family when she found out at 17 – by accident – that her father’s brother had gassed himself. She had heard of this dead uncle, but the insinuation was that the cause had been natural. Otherwise, Elihu was never spoken about.
That did not change over the decades, until Silverman began working on this film. She finally persuaded her father and mother (who had known Elihu since their childhood) to express – on camera – the impact of his death on them.
She wanted to know why they felt their daughter had to be shielded from the facts.
While Silverman understands today that her parents thought they were doing what was best for her, her view is that hushing up suicide is damaging to those left behind because it denies them answers – if, indeed, any could ever be found.
“I felt betrayed because no one told me the truth about it, but that does not mean [my parents] were at fault; they were coming from a good place.”
Secrecy, of course, also perpetuates the shame that often surrounds suicide. The survivors are “the hidden face of suicide,” according to Silverman, and consequently they receive little attention.
The lingering stigma, Silverman believes, is preventing many survivors from reaching out for help.
The one-hour film had its premiere recently at Concordia’s J.A. De Sève Cinema, attracting a capacity 170 people on a Sunday afternoon.
The film follows the support group’s mask-making project, the face coverings being a metaphor for the front survivors have to keep up to the world – trying to go on as if everything is all right, while keeping their pain inside.
Those interviewed, however, are frank about their feelings. One woman lost a husband; a man a sister he was very close to; and a mother, a son. The suicide of their loved ones arouses a variety of emotions including guilt, and all of the interviewees speak of being changed forever.
As the mother observes, when one person takes their own life, “the whole family is condemned…as if something is wrong with them.”
Interviewing these relatives gave Silverman the courage to convince her own parents to open up. She has them relive the day her grandmother called her father to tell him there had been “an accident.”
The couple recalls the heart-rending scene of her “beating her breast, crying ‘why, why’? but, in the same breath, drawing on her faith and thanking God for the time they had with him.”
Although Elihu had appeared to be the golden boy, her father learned later that he had been seeing a psychiatrist. Mental distress, presumably was something that had to be kept under wraps. He still wonders if there was something he could have done to prevent his brother’s death.
Despite these memories, Elihu remains a mystery even to those who were closest to him.
“I hope to raise awareness of the survivors and their suffering, and start the conversation,” said Silverman, “and to help in a small way to break through some of the silence, taboo and stigma.” The fact that a full house attended the film’s premiere, she thinks, is an indication of the hunger for this type of dialogue.
Silverman deliberately did not seek the input of health-care or social work professionals in the making of the film, in order to let those bereaved by suicide do the talking. She thinks, however, the film may be useful to them.
The Hidden Face of Suicide will be screened during the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, being held at Concordia from May 28 to June 4 and to be attended by 9,000 delegates from across Canada.
Silverman is also planning more public screenings. For updates, visit www.yehuditsilverman.com.