One of the things I love and admire about Judaism is its focus on life. Judaism, unlike many other religions, is concerned more with this life than what comes in the hereafter. Judaism does provide rituals for mourners to cling to in those dark days after a loved one dies, but beyond the first weeks or year of mourning, life resumes, and any mention of the departed one brings sympathy and comfort from those around.
My dad killed himself 10 years ago.
The ritual afterwards was completely different. He couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery and asked to be cremated with no funeral, no shiva, nothing. Not only did we have to lose our dad and find some way to reconcile his taking of his own life, but we had to do it without the rituals, which are there for a reason. We had to carve our way, largely on our own and without a community.
So here are a few tips to help you support someone whose life has been affected by the suicide of a loved one.
1. Reach out
As hard or uncomfortable as it is, a person dealing with the suicide of a loved one needs comfort and support too. They may not go through a typical mourning ritual. Let them know you are there. Make the actual phone call, visit, or gesture. Don’t assume that they want to be alone. Just offering to meet up in the park, or take a walk can do wonders. Suicide is accompanied by guilt and shame and many people will not reach out to you.
2. Answers aren’t important
One of the best things you can do is offer to listen and let the person talk about their loved one and their feelings about what happened. Many people don’t offer this because they are afraid that they feel they don’t have any wisdom to offer or anything to say which will be comforting. It’s not having an answer that is so valuable; actually there isn’t an answer, at least not one that will ever silence the questions completely. Still, you can do wonders by just by letting someone know you are there to listen. Let them tell their story and get their feelings out. You’ll be performing a real mitzvah.
3. No judgment
A few people in the wake of my dad’s suicide, with very good intentions, tried to comfort me by condemning what he did. I was told he was gutless, that he was a coward, and that he was a sick person. At times I felt these things, they are a natural part of the mourning process and I know that these people were trying to be supportive by identifying with my anger at the time. The thing is, what they say may not hit you as hurtful at the time, because you may be in the midst of your own anger, but it will hurt you later. Ten years later, I remember those things verbatim and they hit me from time to time and hurt.
4. Remember this person not only died, they lived
When a loved one kills themselves, there is a real chance that this is the thing that will forever define them. It’s so easy to forget that this person did live a life and those left in their wake have memories, and all of them might not be painful.
It’s so easy to let their death overshadow their life. One day a few months after my dad’s suicide, a former colleague of his who had only just heard contacted me and she shared many wonderful memories about how my dad was an inspiration to her in her career and was an amazing teacher. I had been so consumed with the suicide, that I had totally forgotten how my dad loved teaching and his years as a college professor. That one little note reminded me not to define my dad’s life by how he died, but rather how he lived.
I’ve gone back to that note time and again over the years; it’s become a touchstone when the sadness creeps up on me.
So don’t be afraid to share your good memories; they, more than anything, can bring comfort and peace.
5. Silence is so painful
It’s amazing how quickly people clam up when I mention that my dad killed himself or even if I mention his yahrzeit or birthday. Although it is immature to compare, it’s so hurtful to see how people come out of the woodwork for any other cause of death with messages of love, comfort and support, yet many of the same people are eerily silent when you mention suicide.
Over the years many people have sent me private messages that they just “can’t talk about suicide.” That may be because they have their own experience with it or it is just too uncomfortable.
Get over your discomfort. It’s good for you. Not only will your friend feel better because you broke through your comfort zone and will love and cherish you for doing so, you will feel better after having confronted your own fears and helped someone else.
According to the New York Times, suicide rates are on the increase. Maybe if we confronted the stigma surrounding suicide through confronting our own fears about it, people like my dad would have felt they had another answer.