It was already 7:05 a.m. and some of my fellow riders were getting anxious – people were saying. “Let’s go, we’ve already waited for five minutes”. Then, I heard from the rider who was late, who was bringing a visitor along to join in the ride. Apparently, the visitor was riding slowly, so my friend turned around to check on him and inadvertently crashed into a parked car, injuring himself. Our thoughts were naturally focused on our friend who was hurt, but some of us were also frustrated with the visiting cyclist, especially as he got lost twice during the ride. But he did his best; it really wasn’t his fault at all. He just got lost; it happens. We could have been more patient, understanding and compassionate.
During the first year since my son Ariel z”l completed his life by suicide, I lacked those very characteristics. I focused on my own crash – the searing pain, anguish, bewilderment, guilt and never-ending ache in my heart that he bequeathed to me and to our family and his many friends. In addition to the pain, I was filled with anger at my son and anger with myself. I had trouble being empathetic to my lost rider; my own son. It was incomprehensible to understand why he ended his life; harder yet to be compassionate.
First, there was the paralyzing shock: The initial phone calls from home (we were overseas), that something was very wrong with Ariel z”l as he could not be reached. Then, the unbearable uncertainty of what had transpired became clear as a dear friend confirmed my worst fears that our son was dead.
I was caught within the dilemma of coping with the shock of my loss and having to arrange to get back home as quickly as possible. I felt utterly helpless being so far away and unable to help our other two children and trying to support my wife. In therapy, I told my trauma therapist that it was a 30-hour nightmare. Saying Kaddish for a child is against the natural order of life – it is unfathomable.
After the shock, the anger and disappointment at myself and Ariel z”l began to take hold. The proverbial ‘what ifs; “I should have done this,’ ‘how could I have missed this,’ why did I go away and encourage my wife to join me even after Ariel z”l asked her not to do so. I should have listened to him more; should have hugged him more; should have supported him more when he left the army – these were all thoughts that incessantly racked my brain and stabbed at my soul. The anger at Ariel z”l was raw. How could he do this me? His family? His friends? Why didn’t he at least say goodbye in a letter to his family? When some people called him an angel, a hero and brave, I cringed hearing those words. Too many people are in pain and have been scarred for life for Ariel z”l to be defined as a hero.
Slowly, very slowly, with the help of an amazingly supportive and talented therapist, loving family and friends, an incredibly supportive Facebook Community and members from my support group for parents who have lost children to suicide, I began let go of my anger; both at myself and at Ariel z”l. I began to move past my own crash and nightmare and thought about my lost rider; my son.
Ariel z”l tried so hard to confront his OCD related demons, but his noisy brain gave him no rest. Endless thoughts spiraled around his mind like a series of do-loops that computer specialists used to use in Fortran programming. The thoughts exhausted him. He got lost in his anxieties, fought through them, only to lose his way again. Ariel z”l was often depressed and very angry. Angry at me, angry at himself, angry at life. He felt that he was dealt a bad hand – was forced to ride a bad bike – and never was able to move past this anger. But he kept trying; kept reading books; surfed the Internet for answers, stayed in therapy, tried meds, went off meds, went back on meds, developed wonderful and meaningful friendships during high school and at Mechina, fell in love with a woman, wrote songs and poetry, and developed special connections with the children living at the Battered Women’s Shelter, where he worked during his National Service. (In his last moments on this earth, Ariel z”l donated $10,000 each to four children at the Shelter – I guess he was an angel after all).
He lived, he gave and he loved until his legs could no longer keep the pedals moving. He decided to end his 10-year nightmare struggling against OCD, depression and anxiety. He stopped riding.
We both made our share of mistakes, but we tried really hard. I can now better appreciate and accept how much I always looked over my shoulder watching my son ride for 23 years, doing the best I could, hoping that one day he would catch up and find his way. Ariel z”l kept pedaling the best he could, until his legs, noisy brain and soul simply had nothing left. He got lost and couldn’t find his way back amidst the therapies, medications and, at the end, unbearable loneliness.
A month before Ariel z”l took his life, I told him how much I respected his tenacity by continuously getting back up after falling down. He said thanks, but with little affect. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He said, “I just need a little companionship”. So, for the first time since he was a teenager, we played football and on many a Shabbat afternoon he, my wife and I played our favorite family card game. His eyes became alive again; he smiled; we had fun together. Our home, the place of so many clashes, had become Ariel’s z”l safe place and refuge. We became his anchor; we were, finally, learning how to live in the same house. But, sadly, it was too late. In the end, mental illness is like any other physical illness. The pain was relentless and punishing.
So, as I approach the second year since his life ended, the anger of the first year has turned into sadness and a sense of longing for my son that is so deep that it is bottomless. I miss him terribly and am slowly learning to accept that not everyone can ride through. Just like my response to the visiting rider who got lost, I should have been more understanding and compassionate during Ariel’s z”l life. I try to be now in his death.
May his memory be a blessing.
יהי זכרו ברוך