In the Rosh HaShana prayer, Untana Tokef, there is a list of the many ways a person may die. Suicide is not one of them. Even the sage Rabbis who pondered and trembled before God and thought of every conceivable sin and transgression, did not entertain the idea that a human being would take his/her own life. It’s not considered; it’s not a natural option. But how can that be? With suicide rates going up around the world, including in Israel, how can the Rabbis not talk about it – how can society not talk about death by one’s own hand?
Suicide is not natural, so does that mean we shouldn’t discuss it? From a deep place of pain, I can tell you that a parent saying Kaddish (the prayer for mourning in Judaism), as I am for my son, Ariel z”l, is not natural. Writing z”l (May his memory be a blessing), every time after I write my son’s name, is also not natural. My wife and I do the most unnatural of things a parent can fathom – we choose to live life and appreciate its blessings, but with the piercing and searing pain of having lost a child.
We need to talk about the unnatural; about suicide. Perhaps the Rabbis (and society) alluded to suicide when, towards the end of the list of possible causes for death, the options suddenly become more open to subjective interpretation, “Who shall be tranquil and who will shall be disturbed, who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted?
Ariel z” l was afflicted with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and, with the onset of this terrible disease, rarely found comfort or ease in life. Despite his illness, which included years of depression, anxiety, therapy and medication, my son accomplished many things. He became a national champion at judo at 14, had the best year of his life at 18 when he participated in Mechina (a gap year program before the army), at 20, almost completed the Army paramedic course (he dropped out at the end of the course because of emotional issues) and then instead of taking the easy way out, a few months later, volunteered with children at the Battered Women’s Shelter reaching out to children in need, despite his own suffering. At 21 Ariel z” l fell in love with a beautiful woman with whom he gave and received love.
But, Ariel’s z”l noisy brain gave him no respite. At 23, when the cacophony of never ending and conflicting thoughts and ideas swarmed around in his head, eventually breaking his spirit and his strength to continue to live, Ariel z”l committed suicide. In the many books and articles that I have read since Ariel z” l died many softer and nicer terms and expressions are used: “Died by suicide,” “the person ended his suffering,” “the person took his life.”
My trauma therapist encourages me to ‘go dark,’ and to integrate conflicting thoughts and feelings instead of compartmentalizing them; instead of denying them. Suicide is a brutal and violent act. Maybe that’s why the Rabbis and society don’t want to talk about it, not even on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment, when we contemplate death. I know that I certainly didn’t want to talk about it. I recall about two months before Ariel z” l committed suicide, I told him how much I admired his tenacity. That no matter how many hard falls he had taken, he always managed to get up and start anew. I didn’t ask him how he was feeling; I didn’t share my own fears about his quitting his job, closing his Facebook account and his break-up with his girlfriend. I never contemplated my own son committing suicide – it was too scary; not nice; not natural. Denial was easier.
I long for and miss my son desperately. I yearn to have him walk into our house and make a mess. I continue to lay on his bed trying to smell his scent as I read his diaries. I still cry at red lights and visit him every Shabbat with my wife. I regret, so very much, that I didn’t talk more directly (or listen more intently) to Ariel z”l about the possibility of suicide. Yet, I also refuse to soften the consequences of his death. Yes, my son’s pain has ended and he does rest above. Ariel z”l chose, in the quintessential act of self-preservation, to protect himself from his noisy brain. I will try to understand that decision for the rest of my life. But I don’t, and I’m suggesting to others not to, soften the violent nature of his decision. When people talk of Ariel z”l as an angel or hero, I cringe, thinking about the pain experienced by my wife, our other children and all our extended family; of his many friends who are left bewildered, confused, all of us left feeling the weight of tormented guilt. I also, selfishly, think about the noisy brain that I have acquired this past year, and of my wounded heart.
The Rabbis, society and I need to talk more openly about suicide, but without the adjectives and sugar coating. We shouldn’t be in denial; nor should we romanticize the act of suicide. The Rabbis didn’t list suicide in our Yom Kippur prayers. That needs to be corrected. Society needs to have an open conversation about this topic. But this conversation needs to be honest and realistic; done with much love and empathy, but also acknowledging and recognizing the pain and anger involved. גם וגם – This and also that; love and pain and anger can coexist. We need to integrate them.
Let’s talk about it together and maybe next year we can revise the Unatana Tokef prayer.
Shana Tova u’Mevurechet and Moadim L’Simcha