Addressing the Family of a Suicide Victim

Dear Friends of the WJC,

Our community experienced a tragic and untimely death this past week when Lee Wind, whose family have been members of our congregation for many years, took his own life. Rather than dance around the tragedy of suicide, I chose at the funeral to speak directly about the extraordinarily widespread incidence of suicide. My goal was to remove some of the stigma and shame that a suicide victim’s family carries with them, so that we could speak openly about the matter and offer one another comfort and support.

So many people who attended the funeral asked for a copy of my rema rks that I realized that my words had indeed shed some light on a painful and dark subject. Suzanne encouraged me to share my words with a wider audience, in the hope that by speaking about her husband’s death and her family’s experience others might benefit. I applaud her bravery and share her hope. Please feel free to share this document with anyone whom you think would benefit from reading it.

Rabbi Jonathan Kligler

In Memory of Harvey Lee Wind – Chayim Aryeh ben Naftali haCohen v’Sonia

We grieve Lee’s untimely and tragic death, together with his wife Suzanne, his children Natali, Ian and Kendall, his sister Barbara, his brother Isaac and Lee’s nieces and nephews and great nieces and nephews, here and in Israel. We remember Lee ‘s parents Naftali and Sonia Wind, and his brother Michael, all of blessed memory.

I have spoken with Suzanne, and we have agreed that it need not be a secret that Lee died by his own hand. It is high time for us to move beyond the stigma and shame of suicide. As brain science develops, as we understand bit by bit the nature of mental illnesses, as researchers find more and more correctives to the errant brain chemistry that leads to the crushing internal blackness of depression, we understand that in its harshest manifestations the disease is fatal – known as suicide. Those of us who have known or witnessed the bleakness of suicidal depression and have escaped its clutches know that in the depths of depression’s grip there is no hope; death appears better than continued living. It is tragic, but should no longer be a hushed and stigmatized aff air when a suicide occurs. Empathy is called for, so that we might imagine an inner landscape so bleak that oblivion becomes preferable to slogging on each day. We are called to compassion, not harsh judgment, sorrow, not accusation, as we consider the desperation that makes one’s death appear to be the only path to peace and wholeness.

Lee’s death and our gathering today take place during a period in our Jewish calendar known as the Three Weeks. This is the period between the 17th of Tammuz, when the walls of ancient Jerusalem were breached, and the Ninth of Av, Tisha B’av, when the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. In the rhythm of Jewish life this is a time of bleakness and mourning, and it is sadly fitting to be burying Lee today. I looked to the special reading for this season, known as Eichah or Lamentations, in order to share words of Torah here today. The Hebrew Bible is alive for us because it presents the complete palate of human experience, and Eichah pours out the cry of the profoundly depressed. It is the lament not only of a people for the loss of their holy city and sanctuary, but also the cry of the tormented individual lost in the hell of depression:

May it never befall you, all who pass along the road –
Look about and see:
Is there any agony like mine, which was dealt out to me
When the Lord afflicted me on His day of wrath?

From above He sent a fire down into my bones.
He sp read a net for my feet, He hurled me backward;
He has left me forlorn, in constant misery.

The yoke of my offense is bound fast, lashed tight by His hand;
Imposed upon my neck, it saps my strength;
The Lord has delivered me into the hands of that which I cannot withstand.

For these things do I weep, My eyes flow with tears:
Far from me is any comforter who might revive my spirit;
My children are forlorn, for the foe has prevailed. (Lamentations 1:12-14,16)

Or this:

I am the man who has known affliction under the rod of his wrath;
Me He drove on and on in unrelieved darkness;
He has worn away my flesh and skin; He has shattered my bones.

All around me He has built misery and hardship;
He has made me dwell in darkness, like those long dead.

He has walled me in and I cannot break out;
He has weighed me down with chains.

And when I cry aloud and plead, He shuts out my prayer;
He has walled in my ways with hewn blocks,
He has made my paths a maze. (Lamentations 3:1-2, 4-9)

My father committed suicide in 1979. He was so miserable, so abandoned in the mazes of his own diseased mind, that he actually thought that his absence would be better for us than his presence. He had fought his demons for so long, he finally decided to put down his sword and let death take him up in its arms. I mention my dad because I want Lee’s family to know that I know of almost no one who has not been touched by a suicide. It is an astonishingly widespread cause of death, and only the shame and secrecy surrounding its occurrence makes us think otherwise. And so I ask all of us gathered here: who here has a relative who took his or her own life?* Let’s end the secrecy and just talk about it together, in all of its confusion and strangeness, let’s weep about it together. For reasons that are beyond our grasp, it is hard to be a human being. Some of us simply cannot make it through the entire journey and gauntlet of life.

Kendall, Ian, and Natali, when my daughters were younger and asked why their grandfather David was not alive, I decided not to lie. I told them he had a “sadness disease” – not the regular kind of sadness that everyone knows, where even at its worst a small part of you knows that it will pass away like a raincloud and that more pleasant moods will return, but a kind of sadness that never goes away. You wake up every morning, and the cloud is still there, until finally you give up hope and die. Lee had the sadness disease. Some people recover enough from the sadness disease to go on l iving and loving. But some people die from the disease, like my father did, and now like your father. It doesn’t mean Lee didn’t love you – I think you know how much your dad loved you, just like I know how much my dad loved me. I was very angry with my dad for a long time. That is to be expected. Why did he abandon us? But as the anger subsided, and I could begin to imagine what life must have been like for him, what remained was sadness for him. It is very, very sad that Lee couldn’t recover and go on living. I know how much you are going to miss him. I love you, as do many, many people, a lot of whom are here right now, and we want to keep you company and make life good and sweet for you even though your dad is gone. But he may visit you when you dream – I love when I dream about my dad. And I know that even though he is no longer here to hug me, his love is truly forever. &nbs p;Lee wants you to live your lives and have adventures and drink deeply of all good things. As the Song of Songs says, “Love is stronger than death”.

And let us not forget the countless mitzvahs that Lee performed – I know that many of us here were touched by his generosity, thoughtfulness and kindness. And what an intelligent man! And stubborn! And what a hard-working and determined man, so dedicated to his family, to his community and to the Jewish People. Today I have spoken of the tragedy of Lee’s death so that it does not linger in the shadows, so that we can now go on and speak of his life and laugh and cry and remember and tell stories. Begin telling those stories after the burial, and don’t stop – remember and honor the memory of Harvey Lee Wind.

The despair that the Book of Lamentations gives voice to is but one portion of the spectrum of human experience. We pass through it, we who survive the ravages of despair, and find ourselves, sometimes to our own surprise and amazement, singing more hopeful songs. All you who mourn, if you happen to find yourself enjoying the splash of cold water on your face, or the taste of good food, or a sweet moment, a breeze, a deep breath, do not feel guilty that pleasure is yours. Life is complicated and confounding, but it is also very good. Our loved ones, even those who are no longer here, want us to be happy. Even the Book of Lamentations, the darkest book of the Bible, ends with a prayer of hope: Hashiveinu adonai eilecha v’nashuva chadesh yameinu k’kedem – Bring us back, dear God, and we will return. Renew our days as in earlier times.

I sing this prayer, we sing this prayer, for all those gripped by that internal darkness that makes death seem better than life. May they return to life and be renewed in hope.

[*Note: When I asked people to raise hands if they were related to a suicide, many, many hands went up. When a family member or friend commits suicide, the survivors join a club that no one actually wants to belong to. But one soon realizes that this club has a huge membership, and it was a revelatory moment at the ceremony for all of us to realize how prevalent suicide really is.]