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My Son’s Suicide

My Son’s Suicide

Don’t reduce my bright, witty, loving son who struggled with mental illness to details of his death.

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After the death of my son, I wrote an article about “The do’s and don’ts” when expressing sympathy to a parent who lost a child. I saw how uncomfortable people were, how they were a loss for words, and I offered suggestions to families and friends offering condolences.

Traveling this unthinkable road I have found the same awkward and oftentimes hurtful behavior that is connected to suicide. Society attaches a stigma to suicide. Survivors of suicide loss may encounter blame, judgment or social exclusion, while mourners of loved ones who have died from terminal illness, accident, old age or other kinds of deaths usually receive sympathy and compassion.

The stigma overlooks the way my son lived, the bright, witty, gentle, loving young man he was, and focuses instead on his death. When someone suffering from cancer dies, we don’t reduce the person to the details of their death. We think of and remember the person, who they were, what they did in their lifetime, how they will be missed.

I could have been part of this group as well until my son took his own life.

My son suffered from schizophrenia and I would randomly be asked if he “committed suicide”. That is terribly hurtful and painful to the survivors of suicide. I was initially taken aback at the insensitivity. But when this occurred several times I realized it was less of an insensitivity issue and more of a curiosity, a fascination about the act itself, and a lack of understanding that a neurobiological illness is no different than cancer, diabetes, etc.

We tend to label the person as selfish, maybe crazy. We think they took the easy way out.

There is a captivation to suicide we choose not to admit. It scares us and fascinates us at the same time. We wonder what they were thinking during the minutes and hours before taking their life. Whether this is an act of bravery or cowardice on their part? If there is a part inside of us that has at times in our own lives can relate to this act?

We tend to label the person as selfish, maybe crazy. We think they took the easy way out.

Well let me tell you, it’s almost always none of these. The primary goal of a suicide is not to end life, but to end pain.

My son was unable to hold onto any semblance of pain going away. While some may argue that a person who dies by suicide has done so by their own choice, in many cases serious mental illness limits choice, and this debilitation is recognized by Jewish law. My son was the bravest person I knew. He, like so many others, went to battle every day, every night, for 15 years.

My son, and I know I am speaking for hundreds of others, tried for years to have a normal life, with normal jobs, friends, everything most of us take for granted. But those who struggle with mental health issues don’t take anything for granted. If they have one hour of peace, one hour of productive work, one hour of a meaningful relationship, they are grateful. And year after year, month after month, day after day of dealing with horrendous demons does not make them selfish or crazy.

Their intense pain blinds them from seeing the possibility of a peaceful life in their future. Had he lived perhaps in 20 years there might have been a cure.

I am by no means an advocate of taking one’s life. What I am an advocate of and will fight ferociously for is to erase the stigma connected to suicide so our loved ones will be given the respect they deserve, and the survivors will never feel ashamed, isolated or Judged.

Judaism views suicide as a sin. But the suicide of someone suffering from serious mental illness is more akin to a death by a disease.

For some who have been blessed not to have any mental health issues in their lives (it affects one family member in five) schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression unfortunately seem to define the individual. We say this person is schizophrenic, is bipolar, is depressed. We never say, “Janet is cancer.” Yes, it’s an issue of semantics, but I think it also conveys so much more. Our loved ones who suffer from a mental illness must not be defined by their illness or their death.

Judaism views suicide as a sin. Life is a precious gift bestowed by God. It is not ours to treat cavalierly. But the suicide of someone suffering from serious mental illness is more akin to a death by a disease, which it is. Under these horrific circumstances, the taking of one’s life is not entirely one’s volition. Recognizing this gives much comfort to the families.

In the United States, someone dies by suicide every 13 minutes, and each death intimately affects at least six others, according to the American Association of Suicidology. Those who are directly affected include immediate family members, relatives, neighbors, friends, fellow students and/or co-workers.

I spoke with my heart at my son’s funeral about his life and struggles, explaining what we and others face when dealing with mental health issues, particularly schizophrenia. I felt Jake was there with me, and I was speaking through him.

In the days thereafter as friends and family came to offer their condolences and support, the outpouring of thanks for sharing my story was overwhelming. If there was any comfort to be found, it was from these expressions of gratitude and knowing a new light was shed to help others.

November 12, 2016

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 35

(35) Nancy, November 25, 2016 11:50 AM

I am so very sorry.

In my lifetime, I have known 2 people who have committed suicide. (Please forgive me for not giving out further details.) I watched the surviving family members become quiet and withdrawn, and wished that I could do more for them. Could my family members have prevented these suicides? Am I being naive here? To the author and all of the other commenters, let me just once again tell you how deeply sorry I am for your respective losses.

(34) ottenstein, November 18, 2016 8:43 PM

my sons suicide

my son Eliyahu was 17 and mentally ill when he jumped off the roof of our apartment building
I understand the pain

(33) Anonymous, November 18, 2016 8:13 AM

My Son’s Suicide - The Frustration

My son was depressed since childhood. Last Feb. at 42 yrs. old he Killed himself. He left a fair-well letter saying exactly the words Toby Weitzman said: "Depression is an illness that kills you in the end like cancer. I don't blame anybody - I just could't suffer anymore".
We are not religious family. He was spiritual guy and ask to be cremated. Among all our feeling of sadness, understanding, guilt, , we are also anger at him for killing our son ... thank for the article sister Toby.

(32) B. Pogin, November 17, 2016 10:49 AM

some considerations about suicide ban

there are many ways to look at the suicide issue. The life force, chai, is diminished in many ways. I think one that we experience and which is our history too, is humiliation and slavery. If one is enslaved, feels to be enslaved and is humiliated, bullied, over and over, the wish to die, or/and setting up the conditions for that, or enacting suicide on other and daily levels, may well be set up. how as a nation and people, are we on the side of Chai., in daily life, and how are rather on the side of enslavement of others for our own singular or personal benefit? As a people and as individuals, and as family members? I think there are reminders, continually in our teachings about the question of leaving things up to HaShem, and G-d's will versus, we as humans, taking a hand in providing naches and aid to humans, and actually other life forms. There is now even the issue/question of rocks-and water-which both we are., and both we need to survive, which are now under attack by those who feel $$ and gain is prime. How we treat others on a daily basis , how we treat ourselves I feel is more important thant medical dictums and diagnoses concerning the insanity issue. love and thinking of you and your loss.

(31) Beatrice, November 16, 2016 8:35 PM

alternative view of 'mental illness'

If society and authorities repeatedly tell and orchestrate conditions telling an individual that the person' has a diseased brain, then that pressure, those conditions have consequences. For the person in question and those around him or her. Power and subjection. Much of what is taunted as mental illness has no or very little scrupulously examination. That this construct provides jobs for many in our now service economy and also protects many from dealing with interpersonal problems-shielding society, as was the initial reason for the insane asylum is also true. My parents both suicide, I've considered it regularly, but while there is more than good reason for me to kill myself, for some reason I don't . I think that even the social supports we had in the 50's and 60's, for as many problems there were then, suicide was not as common,m and there was more interaction and natural helping one another and the hearing of one another-I think among many groups and types of people. More of this and something like the old fashioned town hall meeting where neighbors, families business people get together to solve problems woud help. i'm not a fan of doctors or psychiatric diagnosis, my mother went to her death after the hospital gave her the junk to go home and do it with. They didn't hear or listen., and they didn't help me either.

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