Archives for category: Tikkun Olam ~ Repairing the World

warning

I want to share something with you, though it is never easy for me to admit. It is incredibly painful and fills me with regret to own it out loud, but I do it in the hopes that it might help save a life.

There were signs that my father was at risk of taking his own life. People have often asked me that question, and in the beginning every single time I was asked, it felt as if a vat of salt was being poured into my very new, raw and open wounds. It made me angry and defensive, as it constantly fed my guilt at not being able to save my father from himself.

The passage of time and my work in suicide prevention advocacy has allowed me to shift my perspective some. I still grapple daily with regret, I don’t think that will ever leave me. But today, when I am asked if there were signs, I square my shoulders, take a deep breath and tell the truth. Yes, the signs were there, but I did not know it. I did not have the training, education or experience to recognize them or to know how to respond even if I did.

Months before my father’s suicide he was struggling. That much I knew, and it was that I tried to love him through. I recognized that he was in the midst of a deep depression and I reminded him constantly that he was not alone, that I was there to listen, to talk, to offer my presence and unconditional support. I reminded him that even in his most broken state, he was loved. I’d like to believe that there were moments when that gave him some relief, some respite from the storm. I’d like to believe that maybe those things helped him to hold on a little bit longer, to fight another day, to cling to that thread even as it unraveled in his hands.

But I also know those things were not enough to save him.

My father had begun to withdraw from things that once brought him pleasure.  He expressed feelings of being a burden & a sense of hopelessness. He wasn’t sleeping and his eating patterns changed. He lost weight, was anxious and agitated.  All of these were signs I only came to know in hindsight, that he might be at risk for suicide.  He did not speak the words out loud that he wanted to end his life.  But his actions and his words whispered hints that I wasn’t equipped to understand.

It’s not that my father didn’t also wear a mask. Like so many who are struggling with mental illness, he could tuck it away, compartmentalize, and put forth an Oscar worthy performance that would convince those who didn’t know better, that he was just fine. And, he didn’t entrust us with his full truth. He didn’t come to us and tell us that he was feeling suicidal.  Though the fact is, I don’t know how long he considered ending his life. I don’t know if he planned it out or if it was, as is often the case, an impulsive act. I will never know that.

This much I do know, and this is what I want to say.  It is true that hindsight is 20/20. And there is often not much good to the old saying, if I knew then, what I know now. The knowing will never bring my father back. And the hindsight remains fraught with pain & regret. But I choose to look at it anyway & I choose to share my story with others. Because I believe that out of the tragedy of my father’s death, lives can be saved.

I chose to get trained in Mental Health First Aid, even if sitting through that class tore away every fragile scab that I had developed. I wanted to ensure that if anyone I loved or cared for was ever at risk for suicide, this time I would be better equipped to respond. This time I would recognize the signs. This time I would know what questions to ask, including the hardest one of all. This time I would know what steps to take to keep that person safe long enough to get them into the right hands and ensure that they got the proper care.  This time, I might just be able to save a life.

Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power.  The newest statistics on suicide are staggering. Based on these findings from The CDC “overall suicide rates have gone up 28 percent since 2000.”  It is particularly staggering to see that “the suicide rate among teenage girls continues to rise and hit a 40-year high in 2015, and rose by more than 30 percent among teen boys and young men between 2007 and 2015.”

But we are not powerless to change this devastating trend. The signs that my father displayed are evident now only in the rear view mirror. But the lessons that his death has given me still have purpose. I got the training in Mental Health First Aid and I share my truth with others because I believe that if we all educate ourselves about suicide risk factors and prevention, we can save lives.

I also believe that it is our moral obligation to do so. Suicide can be prevented. We are not helpless in this fight. Those who are struggling in the darkness need us to shine a light. They need us to be that glimmer of hope that helps them to hold on, to stay and to get the treatment they need. They need to feel that we can be a safe space, that we will listen and that when they show us their pain, we will treat it with compassion, care and understanding.

How do we do that? How do we as parents, spouses, children, or loved ones empower ourselves? How do we do that as educators, clergy, community leaders and people who care about our fellow human beings?

It begins with knowledge. It begins with awareness. It begins with education.

Nothing I do will ever bring my father back. But if the lessons I’ve learned can help to save the life of another, then his death will not be in vein.

To learn more about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

If you are struggling and need someone to talk to call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

To find a course on Mental Health First Aid and further this important cause click here.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
― Maya Angelou

 

 

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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

 

 

 

homeless kindness

 

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren…you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Deuteronomy 15:7-10

I drove into Boulder yesterday to meet a friend for lunch. As I always do before I leave, I checked to ensure that I had a supply of food donation bags in my car.  While it isn’t quite as often that I give out  these bags here in the suburbs of Superior, I can always be certain that as I drive around Boulder, there will be ample opportunities to offer some sustenance to a person in need.

As I came off of the parkway, two young men stood along the side of the road, cardboard sign in hand. I was at the end of the line of cars, far back from the traffic light, but I rolled down my window and got the attention of one of the men. He came over to the car, and I offered him two bags, telling him each contained a little food and drink for him and his companion. He smiled graciously, gave me a compliment on my “beautiful smile” and offered me blessings for my kindness.

We chatted a bit, and as a result, by the time I reached the stop light, it had once again turned red. The second gentleman, who had remained by the light, apologized to me for the fact that in taking the time to chat with his friend, I now had to wait just a few minutes more to make my turn and get to where I was going.  I told him quickly that he owed me no apology at all. I was glad to be able to slow down, offer the bags of food and share in a moment of kind conversation. He responded by thanking me again for the food. “People don’t always realize that sometimes we don’t eat anything at all for two days or so,” he said.  “I can’t imagine how hard that must be,” I answered. “Truly, I’m simply glad to be able to do my small part to change that, at least for today.” His friend had come back to his side by now, and the chat continued. I went on to share that we made these bags as a family, to help ensure that we would never drive by a person in need and not be able to respond. And then came the answer that remained with me throughout the day. One of the young men said to me, “Sometimes people forget that I’m somebody’s child too. Thank you for seeing that.”

Though hidden by my sunglasses, I welled up at his response.  I answered that we are all God’s children, connected in this human family of ours. And in that family kindness, compassion, love and warmth matter.

The light turned green, they once again offered their thanks and wished me a blessed day. I wished the same to them, turned down the road and continued on my day’s journey. I’m always struck by those words, each time we are given the chance to simply put a little food and drink into the hands of someone who is struggling.  They offer their “blessings” to us, without fail, each and every time. We who are blessed with ample food, drink, warmth and shelter receive the blessings of someone with so little to give. It seems to me it should be the other way around.  We have the ability to bestow blessings of our own making; a kind word, a smile, spare change, food and drink. These aren’t acts that will alter the course of any of the men and women who we encounter on the streets or while volunteering for homeless programs in our area. But, they reflect our belief that we are all created b’tzelem elohim (in God’s image).

If we all carry a spark of the Divine spirit within us, then truly, we are all “somebody’s child.”  We are all God’s children. And we must see one another, really see one another. Each encounter that I have, whether volunteering for the Boulder Outreach for Homeless Overflow program at Congregation Har HaShem, or just offering an individual who is in need, a little something to eat or drink, allows them to know that they are seen. They are not just a sign, or a person standing in line for bread or soup. They are seen as a human being. And in the end, isn’t that a universal desire that we all share? Don’t we all want to be seen, to be offered a warm smile, an acknowledgement of our struggles, but also of our humanity? Don’t we all want an outstretched hand, and an escape from judgement about where we are in life and how we got there? Can we ever truly believe that we know somebody else’s story, simply because we get a glimpse of one single chapter? I’m somebody’s child. And I have children of my own. And when they look out at the world, I want them to view it with open eyes and open hearts.

Our little bags comprised of fruit cups, nuts, cereal bars, crackers, water and more, cannot change things on any large scale. And our evenings setting up blankets and handing out food for our homeless neighbors in Boulder, are but a small and temporary answer to an issue that is much larger. I know that. I do.

But when I reflect on the interaction that I shared yesterday, I can’t help but think that in those shared moments, each of us is changed for the better. How we see “the stranger in our midst” softens. How we see ourselves in relation to our fellow human beings, is strengthened. And the humanity that fosters within this family of God’s children offers glimmers of hope for the future.

Their signs and faces vary. Some are young, some are old. They are children. They are veterans. They ask for food, for money, for jobs. Some ask on their signs for any act of kindness, even just a smile. They are us. We are them. It is only circumstance that separates us.

“I’m somebody’s child,” the young man said.

Yes, he is.

So am I.

In that respect, we are no different.

So, let us be kind to one another; in word, in deed and in spirit.

A blessed day is sometimes defined by the smallest of moments.

girls food bags

Our daughters with the food bags that we put together.

If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family. (Susan Sarandon)