National Survivors of Suicide Day

I made a special point of trying not to forget that yesterday was a friend’s birthday, and as a result, forgot that yesterday is National Survivors of Suicide Day. So I’d like to take this occasion to tell people that once a year on the third Saturday of November the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds events in major cities across the United States where people who have had someone close to them commit suicide can go and meet with each other, talk, give and receive support, and know that they are not alone.

Grief, as we all learn if we ourselves live long enough, is a near universal human experience. In a world of becoming and change, nothing is permanent, which means nothing we care about, no matter how deeply we care about it, including our own lives and the lives of those we hold dear, is permanent. All of the creatures live under this rule, that all that is falls into shadow. Human beings are unique in many respects, but this may be one of the most important: we can know this, fully and clearly. The death of someone dear to us can bring this basic fact of existence home to us in an especially vivid way. But the death by violence of someone dear to us does something more, in bringing home to us the unalterable wrongness of this. And when that violence is self-inflicted, when the people we love turn their back on us and life itself, and we see what that does, to them and to us, we are denied the focus, or perhaps the distraction, of anger and blame. This more than anything brings into the clearest light what the most fundamental alternative is, what is truly important. As the Mondoshawan in Fifth Element says, “Only Life Important.”

Surviving suicide of a loved one can be the occasion for wisdom, eventually. But it is, at least initially, one of the hardest experiences that can fall to one’s lot. Setting aside self-euthanasia, it is often unthinkable, utterly unexpected, a shock. It is the ultimate rejection. If divorce with children is a hundred times more painful than the most painful romantic ending, it is countless times more painful than divorce (during the worst times of my divorce I would sometimes tell my children, and myself, “no one has died,” to indicate that there was still a ground under our feet, that in some sense everything was fixable, manageable, bearable, even if the family was changing in so many hard and unwanted ways). It is the ultimate rejection. And in the natural human tendency to reduce powerlessness and perplexity by seeking explanations and causes, many find the only person they can assign responsibility to is themselves, and find this guilt crippling. For those unlucky enough to find the body of a loved one unexpectedly, marred and mocked by violence, there can be post traumatic stress very like that from the battlefield, complete with unexpected panics, rages, flashbacks, obsessiveness, compulsive avoidances and all manner of irrationality. And for those for whom it is their child, the grief is unimaginable.

To those who experience these things, they find they walk in our world as a kind of alien from another planet, for they have looked into an abyss and yet are surrounded by people who act as if there is no abyss. And it is not uncommon for others, often with the best of intentions, to “give them space” and pretend that nothing has occurred for fear of upsetting them, or sometimes, out of dread of the truths that communication might reveal, truths they feel better off not knowing, including the most frightful one: this could happen to you. As a result, survivors of suicide walk their path for the most part alone. I was fortunate not only to have my wife with me through this process, but to have wonderfully sensitive and supportive colleagues and students with me through the worst of it, as well as several months of guidance from a grief counselor who was also a wise rabbi.

Others are not so lucky. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention holds these meetings once a year to take up the slack, but this is only one of the many good works they are trying to do. A million human beings take their lives every year, destroying their own possibilities and leaving devastation behind. In who knows how many cases, this was the wrong choice, an unnecessary choice. Anything that can be done to reduce this number is good works. Please join me in supporting the AFSP.

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