Archives for category: Faith

covered-mirror

I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been working to be as fully present in the here & now as possible. It was a conscious choice to tuck the grief, the loss, the trauma of my dad’s suicide neatly into my back pocket.  I needed to turn away from it, at least for a while.

In Judaism, when you are in the period of shiva, the 7 days following the burial of a loved one, it is customary to cover all of the mirrors in your home.  In the immediate days of grief, we are not supposed to focus on our external selves. Rather, we turn inward, we reflect, we dwell not on the details of our appearance, but on the memories and the life of the one we have lost.

I didn’t observe that tradition while sitting shiva for my father. As a Reform Jew, it didn’t resonate for me. But there was another reason, a deeper one. In the moment that I learned of my father’s suicide, the person that I was shattered into a million pieces. The fragments lay seemingly sprawled in every corner. And how to even begin gathering them up seemed far too overwhelming a task. In the days that followed, I vacillated between feeling totally numb and sobbing uncontrollably. I lashed out in anger one moment, and then sadness swept in and overwhelmed me the next. There was no peace, no comfort, there was only a pain beyond words. I wandered through my home and my days feeling like a stranger in a strange land.

Looking in the mirror was the only way to find some sense of the familiar. Even with swollen eyes, I found tangible evidence that while my inside felt broken beyond repair, some small sense of wholeness still existed. I gazed into the mirror and saw that I was still me… forever altered, but still me.

I will tell you a truth. Almost 23 months later, I still feel broken. Yes, I have gathered up those fragments, and put myself together anew.  But I often feel that if one were to look at me too closely, they would be able to see every fissure & every scar that I must now carry. Sometimes I avoid my own reflection, when it seems to contradict what I am feeling inside. It feels like a cruel mind game, looking whole yet feeling fractured.

I tucked my loss away for a while. I laughed more, I found myself able to be more present for my children, my husband and myself. I read for pleasure, I made jewelry, I spent time with friends, I created in the kitchen and yes, I even needed time to heal from some physical challenges as well.

And I haven’t thought much about my dad. Not because I don’t want to remember him, I do. But reflecting on my dad in life, seems to inevitably bring me to the way he died. That horrible, violent, darkness looms at the end of his story and it permeates each and every other chapter that I try to visit. So, like the mirror in a house of mourning, I draped those reflections off. I averted my gaze with intention. Because that felt a necessary part of my healing.

Today begins the month of March. And looming ever so closely behind is the month of April. My mind has begun to go back to that place, of reliving his final weeks on this earth. I feel my body re-entering that fight or flight mode, the muscle memory of trauma. Creeping back into my psyche are all of the missed signs & the missed opportunities to try and save my father from himself. My rational mind knows there is nothing to be gained by that. But my soul still clamors for a different ending. My eyes still seek the hindsight of a more apparent truth, every fiber of my being yearns for another chance to know then, what I know now.

And so it seems, I must take the covering off of the mirror. Not so I can focus on the external, but so I can reflect. I can’t continuously wall off the pain, there is not a wall strong enough to contain it forever. My soul is crying out to me, to feel the pain, the sorrow, the trauma and the loss & to tend to it with gentle honesty. And my heart, still so full of hurt, wants to make room to sort out the memories of my father’s life; the good & the bad, the laughter & the tears, the loss & the love.

It’s almost two years. I simply can’t believe it. I miss him. I look into the mirror, and once again I feel exposed, vulnerable and wounded. But these days, I also see strength, resilience and courage.  I have survived, I am still surviving. And I am finding ways to thrive.

The mirror beckons, asking that I find a way to let these two truths co-exist. My father died by suicide. And I must live with that. But our story deserves to stand in the light; all of it… because without that, I lose him all over again. How do I find a way to let the reflection hold both of these pieces?

I look in the mirror now. I see a daughter who loved  her father. I see how much she misses him. Perhaps, if I close my eyes, and let the wall come down, I’ll be able to find my father gazing back at me. And through our tears, we can smile and for a moment, be together.

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

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

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

 

 

 

Confession:
I threw myself into cooking today. It was partly because we have a guest coming to share Shabbat with us. But that wasn’t the whole reason.
Yesterday and today I’ve found myself really missing my dad a lot. I miss his voice, I miss knowing that I can call and talk to him, I miss the way he called me “D.” I just miss him, his presence in my life and here on this earth. And the missing is always compounded by the painful notion that the way he died, the way his life of 72 years ended, was so tragic, so violent and just so wrong on every level.
It’s not just that I want to call him so I can say “I love you” or hear him say it in return, it’s that I want a chance to dispel every notion he carried to the grave with him: 
That he was worthless
That we were be better off without him
That his depression & anxiety were something to be ashamed of
That he was weak
That there was no hope that things would/could get better
I’m going to services tonight. And in truth, I’m reluctant. Faith is still a struggle for me, even though I have forgiven God. The language of prayer still trips me up at times and when I am feeling vulnerable, it can open up the floodgates. And tonight, I feel vulnerable.
Yes, I spent the day in the kitchen today preparing a Sabbath meal. I did it for our guest and I did it for me. Because cooking is meditative for me. And I found myself feeling very weepy  throughout.
I know that sixteen months in I have longer stretches of days where I don’t cry, and where the joy is far more front and center than the pain. Still, the pain of his death at his own hands is ever present, like a dull quiet ache. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of how my dad died.
Yesterday and today, that quiet ache got a little stronger and louder. The missing so palpable and the inclination to call him was at times overwhelming. I don’t know what the triggers were, we’ve passed the 20th, it’s not a holiday or a special day of remembrance. It’s just me, a daughter missing her daddy. It’s just me trying to remember him in life and be able to smile, even through tears. It’s just me wishing that his end, if he had to go, could have been peaceful, surrounded by those who loved him most, free of pain & suffering. He deserved at least that. So did we.
I miss my dad, so much that it hurts.

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To live a life of meaning is to know that nothing is ever set in stone. Possibilities dwell on each new horizon and even the setting sun is touched by the promise of tomorrow.

And yet today, 14 months after your suicide we dedicate a stone that stands in stark contrast to that notion of hope and promise. This stone feels so very final, noted with a beginning and an end. The words speak of who you were to us in life; a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother and friend. But there is no space or place to honor who or what you might have become. The finality is undeniable and in truth, still unfathomable.

And then there are those fourteen words, meant to share what mattered most to you, and how you will be remembered. What did you value in your time on this earth?

To bask in the loving warmth of family and friends was his greatest blessing.

Stones…

They can be used to build bridges or be a source of destruction

They can trip us up, placing obstacles in our path, or be the foundation of a new beginning

They can be collected as remembrances of new places we visit and memories we make

They can be polished, smooth, turned into ornaments

They can be rough and jagged, worn down by the elements

They can weigh us down if we try to carry too many of them on our own, a truth we know all too well

And …

They can mark a final resting place

An eloquent monument for a loved one we’ve lost, whose death didn’t have to be.

 

Dad, today I lay on your footstone a piece of my home

Stones, shaped like hearts from the flatirons of Colorado

Lovingly gathered for me by friends that you will never get to meet

From the mountains so beautiful, that you will never get to see.

 

Mother Theresa said:

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

We who loved you are the ripples

The continuing legacy to that stone your life cast

And it is in those ripples that we must find you and carry you forward

This stone we dedicate today will stand for eternity

It is heavy like grief

Yet strong like the human spirit

It will not wither

Neither is it left untouched by passing storms

It is not where we find you, but where we instead honor you

It is where we come to remember, to cry, to talk and to feel as if we are with you.

 

And as we strive to move forward in a world without you

One where so many others know the same pain that you felt

Suffering in silence and feeling alone

I offer you one last promise

It won’t be for nothing nor be without meaning.

No stone will be left unturned

No matter how deeply rooted they are in shame or stigma

If even one life can be saved from telling our story

Then the ripples of your legacy, your life

And even your loss

Will be without end.

July 5, 2016

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faith

 

Dear God,

I have been angry at you for a long time now. Even as I have moved forward on this grief journey, my faith & willingness to trust in you has remained stagnant. I forgave my father for leaving me, for leaving our family, the way that he did. I came to accept that it was the illnesses of depression & anxiety that metastasized into his soul and his spirit, blinding him to anything but his distorted sense of self and the pain that he carried. His soul withered under the constant barrage of falsehoods that depression shouted at him, a daily mantra that grew so loud, it drowned out the voices of love that surrounded him. His inner light flickered, growing smaller & dimmer, until it was extinguished by the anxiety that consumed him. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t really his choice. He wanted only to stop the pain.

But you see God, the soul that I speak of, the spirit and the light within him, those are the very things I wanted to believe that you would tend to. So many of the prayers that I uttered to you in the course of a lifetime reflected that belief, that sense of faith that though you did not control the world with a divine hand, you could, when called upon, lift up the fallen and tend to the weary. The soul was within your purview. And reconciling that belief with the way in which I lost my father has felt next to impossible.

And, let’s be real, it has been no secret to you that I have maintained the need to place blame for this senseless tragedy on someone, somewhere, to lay it squarely on the shoulders of an entity that could carry it.  And you simply fit that bill. I don’t know that it was a conscious choice in my part, perhaps it grew out of the conflicting feelings of the God that I was called upon to exalt and praise in prayer, and the God that I could not find or feel in my deepest moments of trauma. I couldn’t reconcile those two things and it made me angry to have to work so hard at trying to. So it became easier not to try.

Perhaps I laid blame on you because I knew that you could take it. You could carry my rage, my outbursts, my railing against you and you wouldn’t leave. You would bear it. You would wait for me. Somewhere deep inside, maybe I believed that. So why not saddle you with the blame?  But the blame became too high an obstacle.

And I’ll confess God, I don’t even know if my father called out to you. He was a pragmatic man, not deeply spiritual, and it is possible that he never once turned to you in prayer as the darkness descended upon him. But what does that mean? It doesn’t make it easier to let go of the anger, because surely you could see his pain. Must we ask before your loving presence comes to us? These are questions with which I have struggled. These are the questions that bring static into my fractured sense of faith. They are the impediment, the stumbling block when I have tried to find my way back to you. They are questions without answers.

I wrote recently of that very thing, finding my way back to you. The broken pieces I have carried with me, were laid down in front of you and you implored me to entrust some of my pain to you. And I did. The tenuous first steps of our reconciliation had begun, with a single baby step; trusting a piece of me to you.

I still do not trust the universe God. I don’t know that I will ever trust in it again. Life as I knew it was shattered with one phone call. And I do not trust in the ground beneath my feet, for fear that it will shift once again. But I have found the strength to push through that sense of distrust, to not allow it to define me or narrow my experiences in the world. I may inch forward with trepidation, but my feet still carry me toward life. And somewhere along the way, in this past week, I found myself ready to forgive you.

I don’t want to blame you anymore God. You loved him. He is with you now and I want to believe, no I choose to believe, that you have tended to his wounded soul and brought him peace. He is held in your loving embrace. He is not alone. And when he weeps at the devastation his suicide caused to those he loved the most, you wipe his tears.

I still do not know how to talk to you God. I do not know if prayer will ever be the same for me. But I suppose it will take time to figure out our new relationship with one another. The language of reconciliation is sometimes difficult to decipher. So I continue to entrust you with my pain, bit by bit and piece by piece. And I open myself up to the blessings that you have instilled within me; strength, resilience, hope, courage and an abiding love of life. You have surrounded me with a family and circle of friends that embody your divine spirit. They are all the reminder that I need that never once, have you turned away from me.

Forgiveness is about letting go, and I no longer want to carry with me anger toward you. It’s too hard and it hurts too much. I need you in my life God. My father died of an illness. It will never make sense and I will never make peace with his suicide. But I can learn to live with it, ever so slowly. And you and I can find our new normal one breath, one prayer, one letter at a time. Our covenant is weathered, cracked and touched by the most painful elements of life. But I see now, that it is not broken.

For too long I have felt shattered. I tenuously set the fractured pieces in place. I tend to them so they may heal. I strive toward sh’lemut (wholeness) and shalom (peace). And neither is possible without you in my life. Rumi said, “The wound is the place where God enters you.” So I open myself up anew to receiving your divine light and love.

Adonai is close to the brokenhearted, And helps those crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:19

I don’t know how to talk to God since my father’s suicide.

Faith asks of me that I trust in the untouchable, the unknowable.

But I have lived through the unimaginable, the unbearable, and the unforeseeable.

Perhaps it is life itself that I do not trust.

God is the scapegoat

Because I still need a place to lay the blame;

Undeserved as it may be.

I close my eyes and imagine standing in front of God.

Laying out all of the shattered pieces that I have gathered up

I ask, “What now?”

And God answers me, “Entrust me with one fragment at a time.”

“Where do I begin?” I ask.

“Give to me a piece of your pain, that I may carry it and make your burden lighter.”

I don’t know how to talk to God.

But the tears flow.

I allow God to gather them as they do.

A piece of my pain is now in God’s keeping.

I’ll learn to trust again one broken piece at a time.

A Passover Reflection for the Survivor of a Suicide Loss

Written in loving memory of my father, Lowell Jay Herman, z”l, who took his own life on April 20, 2015

 

Oh Holy One,

I lay before you the broken pieces,

The fragments, once whole, now shattered by suicide loss;

Like the tablets that Moses threw to the ground.

I have wandered through this valley of shadows, this land of traumatic grief;

Just as the Israelites wandered the desert in search of a Holy Land.

But my grief knows no final destination.

Rather it is a continual path that I must travel.

It is as though I stand at the shores of the Red Sea.

One year after my father’s suicide, I am parched and so very tired;

But the waters do not part.

I hold no staff imbued with holy powers.

I must simply wade into the waters, trusting in you just as Nachshon did;

An act of trust, and faith that you will carry me through.

But my faith is shaken.

Though I do not cleave to idols that promise an end to my pain;

I have struggled to entrust it to you.

When Miriam was struck with leprosy, she was shut out from her people.

With the passage of time, the prophetess returned.

I too have felt shut out of my faith.

I have cried out for healing, just as Moses did for Miriam.

I have reviled you God.

I have pleaded with you.

And I have sat with you in silence; tears my only words.

Esa einai el heharim me’ayain me’ayain yavo ezri

I lift my eyes to the mountains. From where does my help come?

This Passover, answer me God.

I have tasted the bitter tears.

Help me to once again savor the sweet.

Let my faith be the mortar that mends my soul.

Instill within me the courage to wade into the waters; bravely like Nachshon.

May I find in them the healing that Miriam’s Well brought to the Israelite people.

Strengthen my legs to carry me across.

And just as you guided Moses on the journey, be my compass.

Oh Holy One, restore my spirit and my soul, that they may carry the fragments of my broken self with honor and dignity.

Open my heart to renewal, to shalom, wholeness; that I may carry both the hurt and the healing in the sacred space of my heart.

Help me to return again to trusted covenant with you.

You never lost faith in me. Help me to find my faith in you once again.

 

 

 

Whoever saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world. (Talmud)

Soon, Passover will be here. It is usually one of my favorite holidays. I love the ritual of preparing the house, the smell of the food and the joyous atmosphere at the Seder table.

But this year is different. Passover will begin only three days after the one year anniversary of my father’s suicide.

My father was trapped in his own Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is defined as “narrow places or straits.” And that is where my father found himself.  At 72 years old, he was in the midst of a deep depression coupled with overwhelming anxiety. Those illnesses of the mind left him feeling shackled, unable to see a way out of the suffering and the pain. And on April 20, 2015 he took his own life.

And here I stand, just one year later, still in the midst of my own exodus. I am traveling through this unfamiliar, uncomfortable and at times uninhabitable terrain of traumatic grief.

At the Passover Seder we will read about the four children. One who was wise, one who was simple, one who was wicked and one who did not know how to ask. It is this last one that resonates most with me this year.  I did not know that my father was in danger of hurting himself. I was not prepared to read into the warning signs that he presented. I did not know to ask him if he was considering suicide.

I don’t say all of this from a place of guilt, but rather a place of regret. I have learned so much about mental illness and suicide prevention in the aftermath of his death. And I know now that the signs were present, both the overt and the subtle. And if I had the chance to do it all over, my father might be here with us today.

Every 12.8 minutes in this country another precious life is lost to suicide. On average there are 117 suicides per day. Each year we lose approximately 42,773 Americans to suicide.

How can we change that? It begins with honoring our sacred obligation to reach out to those who find themselves in places of darkness.  We can no longer afford to harden our hearts to the suffering that mental illness can bring, acting as Pharaohs, feeding further into judgement, stigma & shame. We issue too many decrees in the form of platitudes & easy answers. “So let it be written, so let it be done” is not a plan for recovery. For some, the strength to take even the first step on the long exodus toward a land of more promise is too hard. Their pain is far too great a burden. So we must accompany them.

And when we are witness to suffering that causes us concern, when we feel somebody is in danger of harming themselves, we must know how to ask these four questions:

Have you had thoughts about suicide?

Have you thought about a plan to take your own life? (This speaks to suicidal ideation, means and timing)

Have you attempted suicide before?

Do you have access to a gun or other means that you could use?

Asking such blunt & hard questions may leave us feeling “heavy of mouth & heavy of tongue” just like Moses. But we must strengthen our stance, imbue our lips with courage and ask anyway. We must be unambiguous. Because asking these questions can decrease the risk of suicide, simply by showing someone that we care, that we are willing to listen and that we want to help.

This Passover, let us pledge to no longer be “one who does not know to ask.”

I tell the story of losing my father in Mitzrayim in the hopes that all I have learned since can free another soul from despair. The plague of darkness can touch anyone. None of us is immune. So let our words be a source of light, life and hope. Know when to ask, know what to ask.

If someone you love is struggling, know the signs that he/she might be in crisis. For more information please visit The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention  and learn how to respond to these questions by enrolling in a mental health first aid course.