baby-deb-and-dad

Dear Dad,

Tomorrow would have been your 74th birthday.  I still felt the impulse to buy you a card, then I passed the display and instead, began to weep. I thought this second birthday without you would be easier, I was wrong.

I remember when we reconciled, I learned to cherish & never take for granted the simple act of picking up the phone on a holiday or a birthday, to share in good wishes and special sentiments of love & joy. After all, we had endured six years of special days coming and going, marked only by our absence from one another and the silence that filled the void. Yes, it truly felt like we were embarking on a brand new chapter in our relationship, full of promise, forgiveness, rebuilding and a love that felt deeper, stronger and even more authentic because of what we had endured. But that chapter came to a violent and abrupt end 18 months ago. Now our story can only be told in the looking back. And the thought of all that could have been, the pages left unwritten, break my heart.

Eighteen months; I know it’s been a year & a half, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to count it in that way. I’m not ready to put the word year in that space. Isn’t that silly? It is, I know. I wake up almost every day at 3:00 in the morning Dad. We never did get a time of death for you, another missing piece to the puzzle of your suicide. My mind is still trying to make sense of it all. But how do you make sense out of something so very senseless. And yet, my eyes open at 3:00 in the morning and I wonder, is that when you died? Are you trying to give me something to cleave to? Are you trying to answer one of the myriad of questions that occupies my mind at some point each & every day? I’m beginning to believe it.

Oh Dad, I thought getting through all of the firsts would make these seconds without you easier to bear. But I’m told that the second year can be even harder than the first. That darn grief does not follow a linear path, that much I have learned. It’s a constant dance of forward, back and side to side. Right now I feel like I’m just spinning, dizzy, unable to find my center. Tomorrow is just another day I feel like I have to get through. Then some balance might return.

I wish I could have helped you more. I wish that I knew then what I know now. I wish that all that I have learned and all that I have done in the aftermath of your suicide, could help you. I wish it could bring you back. I wish, I wish, for so much I wish.

Why did you go Dad? What happened? What was that final straw that took you from us? Why didn’t you tell us that you were feeling suicidal? Why? I hate that word. Because I will never have the answer. I know the truest answer lies in the illness that consumed your mind. But why didn’t you feel like you could keep fighting on? What made that morning different from all of the others that you had pushed through?

Listen to me; it’s the eve before your birthday and I’m rambling on about me & what I feel. But what about you? Are you at peace? I hope so. Do you know, do you see how much you are missed? I hope so. Do you know how much you were loved. I pray you did.

Tomorrow is your birthday. I wish I could say that I’ll celebrate you, but I just want to get past it. Your suicide has made it deeply complicated to remember you in life, to touch upon the good memories and reminisce.  Maybe one day that will come. I’m told it will. It would be nice to savor a shared moment of joy without having trauma barging in on every darn memory I try to access.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you more Dad. I tried my best. I believe that you know that. But you didn’t tell me your whole truth. You kept a mask on and allowed me only to see a portion of your pain. Were you trying to protect me? You didn’t. You know that now Dad, right?

But I love you. I’ll always love you. And most days I forgive you. Other days I feel like you abandoned me. I can’t lie. You were not always easy, and goodness knows you could be a deeply complicated man. Ours was not a relationship without perils and pitfalls & for a long while we walked on separate paths. But we stood at a fork in the road and found one another again. I am eternally grateful for that. And even in your last months and weeks on this earth, stripped down to your most vulnerable self, you allowed me to know you on a deeper level. I felt like I understood you better, and I came to see that just like me, you were shaped by your own upbringing and all of the dysfunction that you endured. In short, I knew that you did as a father, the very best that you could with what you knew. Not every child gets to see that in their parent no matter how old they get. I thank you for that. I thank you for allowing me a glimpse into your own very human journey. I only wish I could have seen more.

Tomorrow is your birthday. So I’m going to try to end this note with a birthday wish for you…

I wish for you that the peace that eluded you in life, is now yours. May your soul be at rest. And may you always carry with you the knowledge that you were loved, even in your most broken state. Even when darkness blinded you to it, You were loved. And even when you felt most alone, you were loved. I wish you were still here. I wish that I could pick up the phone and call you. I wish I could give you a hug.

And it is my fervent wish that the love we shared can transcend

time & space

pain & sorrow

life and death

So that all that I’ve written can find its way to you with God’s grace.

D

deb-and-dad-childhood

 

 

The following are the reflections that I shared on the morning of Erev Yom Kippur and the day after Yom Kippur on my Facebook page… On fractured faith & forgiveness….

10/11/16 (The morning of Erev Yom Kippur)

Admittedly I find Yom Kippur difficult. The liturgy of these holy days feels almost unbearable to me and leaves me feeling vulnerable and deeply emotional. I have forgiven my father for the way that he left us and I’ve forgiven God for the violent and heartbreaking final words in my father’s Book of Life. But the language of prayer, how to talk to God, remains a major stumbling block. It’s as if there is a deep chasm that stands between Me, God and Faith, and I am still searching for the words that will build a bridge that connects us once more.
But I understand the deep power of forgiveness. And I understand too the importance of believing as well that my father has forgiven me for not fully recognizing the depths of his pain, hard as I tried. And how I must forgive myself for the same.
I also know that I got 3 1/2 more years with my father, because our family did not allow our estrangement to be the final footnote in our story. Six years were lost, but we did not dwell there forever. We journeyed forward into something deeper, stronger, more accepting and loving than before.
And while I struggle with regret that I could not save my father, I never have to wonder if he knew that I loved him. And I know he loved me. We said it, we lived it, we held that love tightly.
Forgiveness is a gift.
I have lived it. And for that I am surely grateful. I am a deeply flawed person. So was my father. So are we all. It is what makes us human. And I’d give anything to have that imperfect man back in my life.
May we all seek and find forgiveness in this New Year. May we be accepting of one another’s flaws & take ownership of our wrongdoings. May we choose forgiveness over punishment, anger and resentment. May we remember that our time on this earth is short, and not miss the opportunities to share our love, compassion and kindness. May we forgive ourselves for those places in which we feel so very broken. Because those are the places that allow the light in.
May your fast be meaningful. I cannot believe it is God who inscribes us in the Book of Life, so instead I say, may we choose to fill the blank pages of tomorrow with humanity, hope, peace, love and forgiveness. Let our stories be full of meaning, mitzvot and mercy.
And may God accompany us through every chapter and verse, an enduring source of comfort, love and strength.

10/13/16 (The day after Yom Kippur)

Dear God,
I couldn’t pull myself together for Kol Nidre. I came to services on Yom Kippur morning. I cried throughout, I left the sanctuary often and I couldn’t utter a word of the liturgy. But I showed up. It would’ve been easier and kinder to myself to stay home. My journey to heal my sense of faith stumbled many steps back. The liturgy pierced my soul with a tirade of triggers. And my knees barely held me upright. But this trauma survivor showed up and stood in your presence. I wanted to show you that I’m still in this fractured and fragile relationship with you God. So I showed up and offered silent prayers of the heart, and tears that held all of the words I couldn’t utter. And that is all I could do God. This Yom Kippur no easier than the last, no less painful, leaving me feeling no less vulnerable, is done. And I’m grateful to simply have gotten through it God. I showed up, in sacred space on the holiest of days to say simply, “Hineni” here I am, here I stand. I’m still in this with you God. Whatever “this” is… I’m not giving up.

yom-kippur

podium9

Dear Anderson Cooper,

You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but we do share something in common. We are both survivors of suicide loss. In 1988 you lost your brother Carter to suicide and 17 months ago, on April 20, 2015, I lost my father.

In just a few days you will join Martha Raddatz at Washington University in St. Louis, to moderate the 2nd Presidential Debate of 2016. This is a chance to speak to some of the biggest challenges that our country is facing, and open up a dialogue with each candidate as to how they might solve those issues, or at the very least, tackle them in such a way as to make a meaningful difference. And so, as a fellow survivor of suicide loss, I am asking you to raise the issue of suicide.

Every day it is estimated that we lose 117 people to suicide; people like your brother and my father. And every 12.3 minutes in this nation another family is left to navigate the painful aftermath that your family and mine has had to face. You understand better than most in the media, that every person who dies by suicide is more than a statistic; they are parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends and neighbors.

The most recent federal data analysis tell us that suicide rates in the United States have surged to a 30 year high. The same research showed an alarming increase in suicide among girls 10 to 14, whose suicide rate, while still very low, had tripled. The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, rose by 63 percent over the course of the study, while it increased by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males of any age. And men over the age of 75 have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

Add to that the fact that we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide and that the suicide rate among female veterans is six times higher than the rate of non-veteran women.

Anderson, these are statistics, numbers, and they are staggering to say the least. But they are so much more than that. These are the casualties of a war that is being fought in the dark. These are deaths so often cloaked in shame, stigma and silence, that those of us left to grieve a suicide loss, often find ourselves feeling alone and isolated in the experience. But you can help to change that.

Don’t you think it is time that we shine a national spotlight on the realities of suicide loss, Anderson? Don’t you think it is time that any conversation about our nation’s healthcare include issues of mental health and suicide prevention? Isn’t it time that we normalize those conversations as part of our national dialogue? And I might add, isn’t it time to change the discourse in the media and on the campaign trail when it comes to the language we use, being mindful not to belittle and further stigmatize those living with mental illness?

It’s been 17 months since I lost my father to suicide. And not a day has gone by, where I have not tried to make some meaning come from his death. I have shared my story openly in the hopes that doing so can help spare another family the pain that mine has endured, a pain you are intimately acquainted with.

You told People magazine, in a March 31, 2016 interview that your brother’s suicide had a definite impact on your career.

“I started going overseas and going to places where life and death was very real and where people were suffering tremendous losses. Hearing their stories and hearing people talk about it sort of helped me to get to a place where I could talk about it, I think.”

This Sunday night, with millions of people watching, you have the chance to further the conversation about suicide in this country. The suffering of those who die by suicide is very real and families like yours and mine are living with tremendous loss. You’ve learned to talk about it, and so have I. So let’s use what we have endured to make a difference. Let’s talk about it. Let’s ask our nation’s potential leadership to talk about it. The spotlight is yours to shine, as a fellow survivor, I hope you will use it.

Sincerely Yours,

Deborah Greene

girls-team-tikvah-2016

Dear Dad,

Yesterday, the girls and I participated in our second Out of the Darkness Walk in Denver. It was a little bit easier than last year’s walk. We had a beautiful day, the air was crisp and the sun was shining. It was certainly better than the gray, cold and dismal weather that we encountered on our first walk. It seems only fair that a walk to prevent suicide, a walk to shed light on a topic so often cloaked in darkness, should be met with warm sunshine and the gentle touch of Mother Nature.

Team Tikvah (Hebrew for Hope) raised over $6,000.00 this year. And since we lost you, including last year’s walk, we have raised over $11,000.00 for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Yes dad, we’ve taken our sorrow as well as our story, and tried to build for you a legacy of hope and of life.

I must admit that it is always the Memory Tree area that tears away at every scab I’ve managed to build up in these last 17 months. Trees are such an enduring symbol of life. They encapsulate the very things that root us, that strengthen us, that allow us to branch out & grow. They endure the harshest of winters, only to once again blossom in the springtime.

But this tree is different. The branches are filled with pictures of all of the precious lives lost to despair & hopelessness. The leaves hold beautiful smiling faces, comprised of all age groups, races and cultures. And on the back of each leaf there is a name, a story, a message of love, a remembrance. It feels both sad and sacred to stand there, to bear witness to the human cost of suicide. And each time that I place your smiling face on that tree, the sorrow that I have learned to live with, rises up like a tsunami and breaks my heart all over again.

But the beauty of the walk is that I cannot stand and remain in that place for too long. None of us can. Slowly, I step away with tear filled eyes and I join in this family of strangers, survivors of suicide loss or suicide attempts, and I am reminded that I am not alone on this journey. The tears that are shed, the stories that are told, resonate for all of us. And because ours is a loss that is often pushed to the periphery lest it make others uncomfortable, we garner strength in the chance to stand front and center with our pain & our purpose. I look around me at the Out of the Darkness Walk and I know that my own efforts to stop suicide are part of something much bigger and more powerful. And that gives me the strength and resolve to keep on fighting.

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Standing on the podium yesterday and gazing out, I was reminded of that truth.

Yes, our stories and loved ones fill that memory tree and it is easy to simply get lost in the despair. But instead, we dig down to our very roots, and like the trunk of a tree we straighten our backs and strengthen our stance. And with every step we take on that walk, each lap around the stadium, we reach out our hands like branches, we take hold of one another, of our losses, and we carry them beyond ourselves. We carry them into our communities, our houses of worship, our government and our schools. And we imbue our memories and our mourning with a deeper mission. We, the survivors, are like the tree that has faced winter’s cruelest storm, but we will not simply wither away.

Dad, I hate to put your picture on that memory tree. That picture, my favorite one of you, draws such a stark contrast between your greatest moments of joy and the darkness that ultimately consumed you. The memory tree is full of those contrasts, beautiful smiling faces whose lives ended in pain & despair. And I suppose that same contrast is present for those of us there to walk in loving memory of each smiling face. We remember and we smile. We remember and we cry. We learn to live with unimaginable pain and we find a way to engage with life again. Tears stream down our face until a smile emerges once again. We feel alone in our loss, but we look around and we are reminded of the community that carries us forward. Our steps are sometimes heavy with the weight of what suicide has taken from us and they are strengthened with the determination to make it matter. That memory tree area symbolizes loss, love and life. And for me, so does the walk itself. I face your loss, I remember & reflect upon the love and with each step that I take, I try to build for you and for me, a legacy that blossoms with life and hope.

dad-memory-tree-2016He who plants a tree, plants hope. (Lucy Larcom, Plant a Tree)

It has taken me a while to sit down and write this letter. Yesterday, when I first read this piece by Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman on The Mighty, I was deeply upset and outraged. It was difficult to find the right words to articulate my thoughts in a manner that could be heard and, I hope, be part of a greater dialogue of understanding.

On September 8, 2016 The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention showed up in force outside of the Good Morning America studio in recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In a sea of blue t-shirts that read, “Be the Voice #StopSuicide” they stood ready to bring the message of suicide prevention to the millions of viewers who tune in to your show every day. They came on a mission of hope, ready to offer thoughtful resources, insights and support to those who might need it. They came to shed a bright light on an issue that is most often shrouded in darkness & fear.

And then, in a deeply disheartening and disturbing  turn of events, they were asked to move out of the camera’s view and told, “It’s the top of our morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.”

In my mind, that decision by your show was not only woefully misguided and callous, it was a missed opportunity to help save lives.

I know a little something about missed opportunities. On April 20, 2015 at the age of 72, my father died by suicide. I often wonder about the missed opportunities that my family and I might have had to save him. I don’t share this from a place of guilt anymore, rather from a deep regret that I did not know enough to recognize the signs that my father might be suicidal. If I had known then, what I know now, there is a chance I might have been able to respond differently. There is a chance that my father might still be here today. The missed opportunities are now part of my story, and every day I strive to share what I have learned in the aftermath of my father’s death.

Yes, I may have missed the opportunity to save my father’s life, but in his memory perhaps I can help to save the life of another precious soul and spare another family from the pain that mine has endured. So I tell my truth. My painful journey began in a Whole Foods market where I received the call that my father had died by suicide. Mine, by the way, is a story that went viral after I wrote an open letter to the strangers in that store who comforted and cared for me in the immediate aftermath of that devastating call. If they had responded the way that your show did, by deciding that it was simply too early on a Monday morning to deal with “suicide on the brain” the darkest moment in my life, might have also been the one in which I felt the most alone. Thankfully, that was not the case.

And when my story went viral, I heard from hundreds of survivors of suicide loss. Once again, strangers reached out to me, reassuring me that one day healing would come, one day I would be happy again and they reminded me that I am far from alone on this journey. As I became stronger, I sought to do the same for others who were newer to their loss and whose wounds were fresh & raw. From the deep roots of our shared sorrow, we gave one another faith and hope. “Suicide on the brain” in our community of survivors means that we understand intimately what the other is feeling and we want to be a beacon of light and a source of support for one another. That shared sense of knowing binds us together, though we are strangers in every other way.

For many of us, it also means that we want to learn from what we have endured. We have lost those we love in the most senseless of ways. It feels like such a waste. We want to give their death some meaning.

I have educated myself about the prevalence of suicide in our nation & what can be done to turn the tide on what is now the tenth leading cause of death. Much of what I have learned and the support that I have received began with the very organization that you asked to step out of the camera’s view, lest their shirts and their message upset those who had tuned in to your show. I have raised money for this organization, participating in their Out of the Darkness Walks, supporting their efforts to reduce suicide 20% by 2025. And I have lobbied on Capitol Hill with them to bring the message of suicide prevention to our country’s leaders. This is an organization that embodies hope. “Suicide on the brain” for this group of people means devoting every day to contemplating how we can do better and help those who are deep in the depths of despair. It is about motivation to open minds and hearts so that lives can be saved. Ignorance may be bliss for some, but knowledge is power and power can be used to break down the very walls of shame, stigma and silence that your show chose to feed into last Thursday morning.

Missed opportunities are hard to live with, especially when we know we won’t ever get another chance to make things right.  I may have missed the opportunity to save my father, but I sure won’t waste the opportunity to imbue his death with purpose and allow his legacy to be one of life and of hope.

The representatives of your show said they didn’t “want suicide on the brain” at the top of your morning show. If the estimates are that someone in this country dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes, then in the span of your two-hour show approximately ten people will have been lost to suicide. And every day that you air a new episode approximately 117 people will die by suicide and their loved ones will represent one of the largest mental health casualties of this largely preventable form of death.

On September 8th, just two days before World Suicide Prevention Day, your show missed an opportunity to talk about suicide with the very people devoted to stopping it. But you get another chance, another opportunity to make it right. It isn’t enough to visit this issue only in the aftermath of another celebrity death. It’s time to talk openly and honestly every day and to stop relegating those of us who have lived experience, or who have lost someone we care about, to the periphery, far outside of the camera’s view. We deserve better than that. And we will keep raising our voices for as long as it takes.

You owe this community of survivors, advocates and messengers of hope a sincere apology. And to truly make this right, you owe us a place in front of the camera and a platform from which to speak. Let us say the word suicide, let us put it on the brains of those who tune in to watch your show. Let us empower, educate and share a message of hope. The shirts we wear say, “Be The Voice #StopSuicide” so let our voices be heard. Because the truth is, it might just save the life of some of those very same viewers that you sought to hide us from.

Sincerely,

Deborah Greene

img_2208

I went out in my Be The Voice #StopSuicide shirt today It’s  a message of hope!

 

una-taneh-tokef

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

So begins the poem Unetaneh Tokef which is recited on Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur. I have always struggled with this poem, reading the very literal translation speaks to an intervening God, one who is ready to stand in judgement and hand down harsh punishment to his/her children. That is not the God I believe in.

Who shall live and who shall die,

Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,

Over the years I tried to look at the poem metaphorically, searching for a deeper meaning and one that reflected the compassionate and loving God that I believe in. Turning the lens, I searched the words and found a message of the uncertainty of our days. None of us knows when our time on this earth will pass, nor do we get to choose the manner of our death. So, what will we make of the time that we have been given?

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree

When we stand in front of God and are asked to reflect upon our lives will we be able to answer that we tried to do right by those we cared for? Will we be able to say that when we “sinned” or missed the mark, we sought to learn from our mistakes and to make amends to those we hurt along the way? How will we be able to speak to God about the relationship we held with our faith and our community? Will we be able to say that our deeds, more often than not, were imbued with compassion, kindness, peace and the notion of tzedakah (charity)?  These questions call upon us to do some real soul-searching on these holiest of days.

So why is it that I can no longer utter the words of this prayer? Why will I choose not to stay in the room at all when it is spoken? Why does the metaphorical lens no longer work for me?

Allow me to say it in the simplest of terms. It is a trigger for me. The violent manner in which my father died by suicide is specifically laid out in the words of this poem. I won’t reference them here, lest my words serve as a trigger to someone else. To hear those words uttered around me, or to even consider allowing them to come from my lips makes me physically ill. There is nothing metaphorical about it, there is no way for me to turn the lens and try to reinterpret the nature of how my father died in the basement of my childhood home.

And then there is this line:

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented

Tormented.

Mental illness had tormented my father for months. Depression and anxiety tag teamed him in such a cruel manner, pulling him deeper and deeper into a place of darkness, and we who loved him most did not see how far he was sinking.

Tormented.

My father died alone. He died believing that we would be better off without him. He died cloaked in shame and sorrow. He had lost all hope that things could get better. He died in a state of torment and when he died, and I pray found some peace, the torment was then passed on to the survivors of his suicide. The torment has become a part of the fabric of my own being, the being of my mother, my brother and all who loved and cared for my dad. And we strive daily to navigate through it, to find a place for it, seeking peace for wounds so deep that at times, they threaten to tear us apart.

I understand the metaphorical value that some see in this poem. But as a trauma survivor I have become personally and painfully acquainted with triggers. And when I look at the words of this poem, I am struck not only by my triggers, but the potential for those who have been tragically touched by things like fire, flood or violent assaults.

Perhaps in addition to asking congregants to try to dig deeper, and to take the words beyond their very literal interpretation, it is also time for those who lead us in prayer to acknowledge that for some, the words alone, have the power to trigger traumatic thoughts and memories. Do not ask us to try and push through that, rather give us an opportunity to leave the room, should we choose. What an authentic recognition of Acute Stress Disorder & Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that would be. And what a valuable lesson that offers to those around us as well, demonstrating that sometimes all it takes is a word, or the imagery those words can evoke, to re-open our wounds. And surely on the holiest of days, what God wants of us is not only to look within and search our souls, but to tend to them, nurture them & protect them as well.

That is what I will be doing when I leave the sanctuary in advance of this prayer. And I believe with all of my heart that God will fully understand.

An edited version of this piece also ran in The Jewish Daily Forward

Yes, it is widely known where I was when I learned of my father’s suicide. And my letter to the strangers in Whole Foods that cared for me has traveled far and wide. But what I haven’t written about or even talked very openly about, is what it was like for me to try and return to that very same Whole Foods weeks after that tragic morning.

But I’m finally writing about that part of my struggle and the deep imprint of trauma that accompanied me on that first visit back to the store.

Approaching the entrance, my legs felt impossibly heavy, as my body begged me to retreat. I was determined to beat grief at it’s own game. When I stepped inside, though, so too did the traumatic imprint of my father’s suicide….

To read the rest of this piece, click on this link to visit Modern Loss

shofar woman

Yesterday began the Hebrew month of Elul, the month that precedes the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur. September, which began only two days before, is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. So, what do these two months, one in the English calendar, the other in the Hebrew calendar, have in common?

Elul is a month in which we are encouraged to take time daily for personal reflection. As we embark on an honest accounting of the year that has passed, we must ask ourselves some hard questions.

What kind of person have I been in this past year?

When have I missed the mark, hurting others or even myself through word or deed?

Have I opened my mouth in the face of injustice or have I stood quietly by saying nothing at all?

Have I  been a steadfast partner to God, engaging in acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world)?

Have I treated myself and others with kavod (respect), chesed (kindness) and ahavah (love)?

We look inward and we look around us and we open ourselves up to the honest and sometimes hard work of owning our shortcomings and our mistakes. And in doing so, we strive to learn from them and enter into the holiest of days ready to be better, to do better, to live better.

But it is not enough. As we take stock in our individual selves, so too must we take stock in our communities, our synagogues, our Jewish places of learning, gathering and prayer.

There is a tradition during the month of Elul to blow the shofar each morning until the start of Rosh Hashanah. The sound is meant to stir our spirits, to awaken us, it is a call to action meant to rouse our souls from slumber. Apathy, indifference, a numbing to the suffering in our midst happens to us all. The blast of the shofar reminds us that there is no place for these attributes. We wear them like a shield, sometimes unknowingly, sometimes with purpose, insulating ourselves from the harsh & uncomfortable truths that permeate our world. But these truths cannot be answered if we are so willing to simply turn away. This month of reflection demands that we open our eyes, strengthen our stance, and look  at these truths head on.

And so it is with the very idea of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.

Let us confess honestly that suicide is a word still fraught with stigma and shame. It makes us uncomfortable,  and so we speak of it most often in hushed tones & quiet spaces. We are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that we often choose to say nothing at all. In our own Jewish history, there was a time when those who died at their own hand, were not even allowed to be buried inside the gates of the cemetery. And while we have thankfully moved past that custom, we have not come far enough in educating ourselves about suicide loss & prevention, nor have we used our collective voices to lift the cloak of darkness that surrounds this topic. And our silence must end.

According to the CDC suicide in the United States has risen to the highest levels in nearly 30 years. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in our nation claiming an average of 117 lives each day. From 1999-2014 the percent increase in suicide rates of females was greatest for children ages 10-14. And for men, the increase was largest for those ages 45-64. More than 60 percent of people in this country who die from guns die by suicide, a fact not often included in our national dialogue. And suicides have become the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States. The facts go on and on, each more sobering. And what is perhaps most startling of all is that suicide is preventable. We have the power to help stop it.

We read in this month of Elul Psalm 27.

Adonai — Sh’ma/hear my voice when I call!
Have mercy on me and respond!

You seek my heart,
My heart seeks You —
I seek Your Presence.

Do not hide Your Face from me;
Do not turn Your servant away in anger!
You have always been my Help
so do not abandon me, do not forsake me,
my God, my Saving One.

We are more than Adonai’s children, partners in creation. It is not only God who hears the cries of those suffering from pain & despair. We hear them too. We know there are those in our communities who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. We know that there are those who engage in self-injurious behavior, who grapple with suicidal ideation, who have lost a loved one to suicide, putting them at greater risk themselves.We know there are those who are more vulnerable, isolated and left to stand on the periphery. We hear their cries, like the sound of the shofar, and God wants us to answer. But how?

Overall, studies show that connectedness is an important protective factor for suicide. The CDC defines connectedness as: The degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated or shares resources with other persons or groups. It goes on to elaborate that  positive attachments to community organizations like schools and faith-based organizations can increase an individual’s sense of belonging.

So we must cultivate that sense of connectedness for those who feel stigmatized or ashamed because they grapple with illnesses of the mind. We must let them know that our congregations and Jewish communities are safe havens.We must tear down the walls of shame by speaking the words mental illness & suicide out loud, until we normalize the conversations.

We must ensure that our clergy, staff and lay leaders are fully trained in Mental Health First Aid. Every year, one in four Americans will suffer from a mental illness or addiction. Training in Mental Health First Aid allows our Jewish institutions to be places that are ready to respond to anyone in a behavioral health crisis. We can learn to recognize the warning signs that someone might be at risk for suicide. Too often our fear causes us to turn away from those who need us most, but empowered with the right training we can respond on the frontlines of a crisis and help our friends, family members, congregants and students to stay safe, and help guide them to the proper help.

And I say this final piece as one with the lived experience of suicide loss. It is time to reach out to the survivors of suicide loss in a sustained and supportive way. According to Edwin Shneidman, PhD, American Association of Suicidology Founding President, “Survivors of suicide represent the largest mental health casualties related to suicide.” Postvention is critical and is defined as an organized response in the aftermath of a suicide to accomplish any one or more of the following:

  • To facilitate the healing of individuals from the grief and distress of suicide loss
  • To mitigate other negative effects of exposure to suicide
  • To prevent suicide among people who are at high risk after exposure to suicide

Clergy members should seek out resources & training to help them better respond to the layers of grief & trauma that survivors have to endure. Congregants should be given guidelines to help them when they come to a house of mourning, when a suicide is involved. Far too often we are inundated with probing questions about the details of our loved ones death, or the signs that we missed, or worse yet people do not come to pay their respects at all because our loss makes them so deeply uncomfortable. Every survivor I have ever spoken with will tell you that in the moment that we find our loved ones, or learn of their suicide, we are forever altered and many of us suffer from PTSD for years to come. We need our faith & our Jewish communities to accompany us for as long as it takes to pick up the shattered pieces of our lives and find our way to a new normal.

Friends the month of Elul is upon us. The sound of the shofar is crying out to us. This silent epidemic cannot be left unanswered. The voices of darkness and pain must be met with faith & hope. Our fear of mental illness must be replaced with a new resolve to educate ourselves and those around us. The cries of the shofar echo the cries of those left in the depths of sorrow, feeling alone, believing that those who love them most would be better off without them.

“Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
have mercy on me, answer me.” (Ps. 27.7)

We can be God’s voice. We can reach out a hand. We can bring mercy. We can answer. As we take stock during this month of Elul, let us not only look inward, but let us look beyond ourselves to those who are suffering. With “integrity and uprightness” may we watch over them. If “The Lord is [their] light and [their] help” (Ps. 27.1) let us be a lantern  and a loving hand. Let every Jewish institution, from houses of worship, to schools & community centers, resolve to be safe spaces and places. On the holiest of ground, may we provide the protection of a communal tent.

Kein Yehi Ratzon

deb dad bat mitzvah pic

My Beloved Father Lowell Jay Herman, z”l, who died by suicide April 20, 2015

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal please call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

An edited version of this piece also ran on ReformJudaism.org

 

 

 

 

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

One of the hardest parts of losing my dad to suicide is how the trauma has impacted my ability to remember him. I look at pictures or videos, or I simply reflect upon a memory of the past and within moments images & thoughts of how my father died come racing into my mind. My therapist assures me that this is normal, that one day the walls of trauma will recede and allow me to remember my father in life without always having those memories tainted by his death.

I tell my husband that trying to remember my dad, feels like looking through a kaleidoscope. I can see fragments, but no matter how I turn the lens, I can’t access one whole, pure, loving memory. And that feels like another layer of loss.

And yet, the one way that I feel like I can remember my dad, free of the trauma and the pain, is through food. It’s not surprising for those who know me. I am more than an avid foodie, with a passion for cooking. For me, food is the truest & most authentic expression of love. It nurtures, it heals, it awakens the senses, it brings pleasure, it eases sorrow, it is comfort, tradition & family. For me, food is memories. It’s intimately connected to the moments we share with those who matter most to us. It’s the one place I can find my father in a way that feels pure and whole.

It’s ironic of course, that my dad and I had very little in common when it came to food in our adult years. I’m a vegetarian. He was far from it. I cook & eat mostly vegan, and my father, while always a good sport when staying in my home, needed the occasional restaurant fix of meat or chicken to sustain him through the visit. I am all about organic foods, locally, sustainably & ethically sourced wherever and whenever possible. Processed foods don’t get much play in my house and every label of every box and bag has been read. My dad? He just wanted the foods that tasted good, that were familiar to him, the flavors that he knew. It was a source of pride for me each time I fed him a homemade meal and won him over, even getting him to like brussel sprouts at the age of 70. Though he only liked them, the way that I prepared them. That thought still makes me smile.

As a kid, I have certain food memories of my dad. I remember going to the diner and being introduced to one of his favorite desserts, waffles with vanilla ice cream. I remember family outings on summer evenings to get ice cream & thick-shakes at Carvel. I remember how much he loved noshing on pretzels and the holidays when he carved the roast chicken or turkey that my mother had prepared. I remember his love of pastrami, or salami & eggs at Wolfie’s Deli. I remember when he stood up for me and my brother when my mom tried to get us to eat liver, remembering his own unpleasant childhood memories at having been forced to do the same. And who could forget the New York City hotdogs he would buy for me when I would go into Manhattan with him? And there are more….

Then there is the memory of the Entenmann’s NY Style Crumb Cake that would often be in our house when I was a kid. That familiar white box with the blue writing and the many mornings that my father would carve out a piece of cake and have it for breakfast along with his coffee (before cholesterol became a concern). That’s one of the memories that comes to mind most often. I don’t know why, it just does.

Entenmann's

So today, after another hard night touched by the images of my father’s death, and on the heels of a day that seemed to be weighed down by unknowable triggers, I decided to honor that memory the best way that I know how. I turned on the stereo and piped my father’s first cousin and one of his favorite artists, Barbra Streisand, through the house. Setting the music to shuffle, it took my breath away when the very first song that came on was “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark
Walk on, through the wind
Walk on, through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

And in that moment I let myself believe that my dad was talking to me. He chose that song, as has happened before, to remind me that even when it’s hard to find him, he is with me. And seeing my swollen puffy eyes, and my broken spirit, my dad wanted me to know that it won’t always hurt this way, that golden sky will follow the storm. And never, ever, am I alone.

With that, I turned on the oven and took out my best ingredients, setting about to make my own New York Style Crumb Cake, just like that Entenmann’s cake he used to love, only better because mine would be made from scratch. I didn’t go vegan, I wanted to make it the old-fashioned way, though every ingredient reflected the values that I bring to my cooking and baking. And while Barbra played on in the background, with flour, butter, sugar, eggs and spices, I took a memory and brought it to life in my kitchen. And as the cake was baking, a delicious scent filled my house. I couldn’t help but hope that my dad might be able to breathe it in somewhere. And that he remembers those same breakfasts that we shared at the kitchen table and the myriad of other food memories that we shared.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Later on today, I’ll pour myself a cup of instant coffee, because that’s what my dad used to drink. Mine won’t have Splenda or Half-n-Half, but some organic cane sugar and almond milk instead (hope you don’t mind Dad). And with the music continuing to play, I’ll have a slice of crumb cake and I’ll savor the memories that food allows me to find with my father, unspoiled by trauma & pain. And I will let that touch of sweetness nourish my spirit and bring me some comfort. Because food is memories and food is love.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

This one is for you Dad.

I adapted this recipe from Fine Cooking to make today’s food memory.

be the voice

 

And so it begins, my second Suicide Prevention Awareness Month as a survivor of suicide loss. Sometimes I try to think back to the days before losing my dad to suicide and I wonder if I had any awareness that such a month existed. And if I was aware of it, whether through social media, or something I read in a passing article, what did I think? How much attention did I pay to the statistics, the stories, the human cost behind the headlines? I wonder if there were any headlines at all?

The truth is, I don’t remember. I’ve long been someone who stood in support of greater mental health awareness. My own daughter struggled terribly with anxiety for years and years, and through therapy and medication found her way to a better place. There was never shame. I know others in my circle who’ve dealt with a variety of mental illnesses, and I’ve never seen it as something to be ashamed of. But suicide? I’m sure I looked at it with a heart full of sympathy, but I am also fairly certain that I never, ever thought that it would touch my world or someone I love. I was wrong. I was dead wrong.

I woke up this morning with a heavy heart. Something about the start of this month triggered me and I couldn’t quite explain why. I wave the flag of suicide prevention & awareness almost every day. Sometimes it’s through my own words, other times through lobbying, raising money or simply sharing insightful & important articles with my peers and on social media. I tell my story often and with great openness. I’m not ashamed of how my father died, but I am determined to bring meaning to his loss. And yet today felt heavier for some reason. I know those days come and sixteen months later, I know they will also pass.

Still, I had errands to run, so I put on my Be The Voice #StopSuicide T-shirt from The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and I went out to the stores. The shirt has at times led to some meaningful conversations. Recently I wore it into Pet Smart and the woman behind the counter read it, and asked me to tell her what it meant & what group it helped to support. I told her about my own loss and the work of AFSP & she told me that suicide had touched the lives of people she cared about as well. She thanked me for having the courage to share my story and for my efforts to raise awareness about this deeply personal tragedy. “You’re making a difference” she told me. I thanked her, paid for my items then got into my car, where the tears quickly followed. It’s not easy to be so vulnerable when standing face to face with a stranger. It’s far easier to open up from behind a computer screen.

Today brought me to Costco. It was pretty quiet there, I did my shop, paid and stood waiting to have the gentleman at the door check the receipt against the items in my cart. He looked at my shirt and read it out loud. “Be the voice. Stop Suicide.” And then he followed it with, “You know that it’s the voices that lead people to suicide.” Nobody was behind me, there was no rush out the door, and vulnerable as I felt today, I took a deep breath and answered him. “Actually sir, its mental illness that leads to suicide. The voices that tell people that there is no hope left, that their loved ones would be better off without them and that death is truly the only way to end their pain, those voices are lies that depression, anxiety and other illnesses of the mind trick them into believing.” He looked at me, looked behind me and saw that there was still nobody else waiting. “You’re right young lady. Do you mind my asking why you wear that shirt?” Another deep breath, another gulping back of tears and I answered, “Because 16 months ago my father died by suicide. I am his voice now. And I want his death to have meaning. I want to try to save lives in his memory. And sometimes that starts with a simple conversation that helps build awareness. Conversations like the one that you and I are having.”

By now there was a line. He looked me in the eye and expressed condolences for my loss. I thanked him, barely holding back the tears that seemed to determined to flow today. I started to head out when he said “I’m sure you make your daddy proud young lady.” Unable to speak any further, I nodded my appreciation, hid behind my sunglasses and walked as quickly as I could to my car. And then, when I was safely hidden away from that public space, I cried.

No, it’s not always easy to wave the flag of suicide prevention and awareness. Sometimes I need to turn away from it to tend to my own healing & spirit. And some days I take a more passive approach. I put on a shirt, I walk out the door and I open myself up to stares, to questions and sometimes to conversations like the one I had today. And one human being at a time, I hope that I am making a difference. I hope that I am honoring my father’s story and that his voice can be heard each time that I share it.