(As have the first two columns in this series, this one also deals with suicide and may be difficult for some people to read. Also, if you have any concerns about mental health issues or halachah, please consult an expert who can help you personally.)
In 2009, Efrem Epstein was going through a time. He got professional help while attending World Suicide Awareness Day hosted at the United Nations. “I saw a lot of different communities, like people of color and LGBT people, discussing their communities’ responses to suicide and mental illness, but there was no Jewish presence,” Epstein told Tabletmag.com in 2014. “I knew I had to change that.”
The result of his efforts is the non-profit organization, Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to the Issues of Suicide Awareness and Prevention. He chose the name Elijah’s Journey to underscore that emotional struggles are not unique to our generation. In the Book of I Kings, Elijah pleads for God to take his life. The response: God sends an angel who instructs Elijah to undertake a 40-day journey before reassessing the situation. “We hope our name will help to convey the message that the journey from darkness to light is one that many great individuals have walked and one is never as alone as they might feel.”
Over the years, Epstein has organized speakers series, group marches, and Shabbat and Passover programming including a thoughts on despair and suicide awareness to be read upon opening the door for Elijah at the Passover seder.
Despite his achievements, Epstein feels that it has been a struggle gaining acceptance because of the lingering stigma attached to suicide in the Jewish community. Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, told Tabletmag.com that a better sensitivity to suicide is having an impact. “As the understanding of mental-health issues evolved, there was a realization that people don’t generally commit suicide as a religious act of defiance but as a function of mental diseases beyond their control. Someone [who’s mentally ill] dying of suicide isn’t different than someone dying of cancer.”
On this side of the border, a panel discussion titled, Breaking the Stigma: Depression and Suicide in the Jewish Community was held in 2016 at Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Congregation. Rabbi Noah Cheses of Shaarei Shomayim told The CJN that the event was co-ordinated “in reaction to occurrences that struck and rattled” his congregation and Beth Tzedec’s.
“[These events] precipitated conversations, but these weren’t happening at the Shabbes table. They were hush hush. So we felt a responsibility to bring to the forefront a community conversation and shed light on an area that’s long been in the shadows,” he said. (More videos from the evening can be found here.)
After the initial shock and after the funeral comes the shiva. Knowing what to say at any shiva can be a challenge. Knowing what to say at the shiva for someone who has committed suicide can be particularly difficult. Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to Suicide Awareness and Prevention has published a guide that begins with advice about what NOT to say:
- “They are in a better place now.” This kind of language implies that the loved one was in a bad place before his or her death.
- “You did everything you could.” Especially after losing a loved one to suicide, families would like to maintain hope that suicide is preventable. Strive not to do harm with your words, saying, “You did everything you could.”
- And don’t ask questions about the suicide. It may be painful for the family members to relive those moments by having to answer questions about it.
What SHOULD you do?
- Focus on the life of the person who has died. Try your best to avoid talking about other people who have died, by suicide or by other causes, and focus on supporting the mourners.
- Offer a positive memory of the person who you are there to grieve, so that the family can collect memories of their loved one.
* And I will add one that is applicable to all shivas. Don’t be afraid to sit there and say nothing at all. Your presence alone is a comfort.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram has tried to offer solace through poetry. “A Rabbi’s Prayer” reveals the strength she requests in order to guide “those left behind who struggle to understand how to continue living life for You / help me help her choose life.” Her poem, “A Broken Kaddish,” reflects the heartbreak of a wife to her husband’s suicide.
|A Broken Kaddish|
|Rabbi Goldie Milgram|
|Yitgadal v’yitkadash||How can I live without you?|
|Shmei rabbah||Why did you choose to go?|
|B’almah divrah||It was my fault|
|keerutei||Did G*d call you away?|
|V’yamleekh||Selfish you /Selfish G*d|
|malkhutei||Please don’t be dead|
|v’hayeikhon||I need you beside me|
|u’v’yohmeyhon||I love you, my best friend|
|u’v’khayei||May your soul’s journey|
|d’khol beit yisrael||be to incredible realms|
|b’agalah||where you feel only happiness|
|u’vizman||Bless me from where you are|
|kareev||not to die of grief|
|v’imroo||or to hate you for leaving me|
|ameyn||or myself for losing you|
|y’hay shlamah rabbah||Dear unfair Source of Life|
|min shamaya||Give me back my beloved|
|v’chayyim aleynu||You bear this pain|
|va’l kol yisrael||I feel shattered|
|v’imru||I am lost.|