HOPE Lights The Night 2019
Rabbi Nadya Gross
Ten years ago, when I was first invited to address this gathering, my greatest concern was that I would inadvertently say something that would push a button in one or more of those present and cause new wounding or re-wounding.
I still feel that anxiety – each year as I prepare my message to you. I know there is no ‘one size fits all’ set of words and ideas for this most complex loss. And so I ask your forgiveness, in advance, if anything I say or fail to say causes pain. And, I beg you to talk to me about it. I have learned so much from those of you who have generously shared your stories with me … you have made me a better person and more competent spiritual caregiver.
Ten years ago, I felt like a fish out of water … and realized that I was entering an uncharted territory. I had no maps to help me navigate. And, if I had no maps, I wondered what kind of guidance or support is available to those who have experienced a loss to suicide [the ones we call survivors] and how does the community around them know what to say and do?
It’s as if all the conventions that surround loss and grief when death comes as a result of illness, accident, violence or old age fail us in the face of death by suicide – there are no conventions.
Many still feel the stigma that is often associated with suicide – a result of cultural and religious interpretations of an earlier day – that may prevent you from talking about your loss, and inhibit others from reaching out to offer support and comfort. Others are paralyzed by grief that is compounded by blame, guilt, shame and self-judgment – the second-guessing – that follows the loss of a loved one to suicide. I have to imagine that many of you sitting here tonight have asked yourself what you might have done differently; have walked the path of “what-ifs” time and again. And you may well imagine that others are wondering the same about you. Whether that is true or not, it serves to prevent you from reaching out and receiving the loving support you need and deserve.
We all need community – and you who have suffered this loss need it all the more. This event occurs to remind you that you are not alone in your grief, in your experience. While each loss is its own unique thing, and grief is personal, isn’t it comforting to know that those around you, here, understand in some unparalleled way exactly what you’re going through – have gone through?
This summer, I sat in a circle of friends who had come together to support a couple who had just lost their adult child to suicide. We were a community cobbled together from old friends of the family and newer ones, those who had known the child in their youth and those who had never met. All whose hearts were sore with the loss we were witnessing in our friends. And, stunningly, two couples in the circle who had come to offer loving support, had themselves lost children to suicide. I bowed to their wisdom and their willingness to revisit their wound in order to comfort and be present to this fresh wound.
One of those parents spoke about how the loss goes on and on and the grief goes on and on … and underneath it a kind of joy that is the realization of how big the heart is. The depth and strength of the loss and grief only mirroring the depth and strength of the love for their child.
Another of those parents spoke of the mystery. There is so much we cannot know. We will never know what led to that final choice, what was going on in the mind and heart in those final moments. And leaning into the mystery … not knowing is all one can do.
I learned at an early age that “why” isn’t a helpful question. What and how take me in a direction of living. What do I make of myself and my life in the face of what is, and how do I go about it – where do I find the strength and wisdom to follow through?
Why? – One thing I have come across again and again in my research on this subject, is that all the best interventions, and the most loving support, will not always prevent someone from completing suicide. Just as the best efforts at healing a disease, the finest physicians and best medicines that money can buy, will not always guarantee that the patient will not die.
What, how where? – I have said, many times, that I don’t know your loss. I have done my best to learn how to be present to it, and I can only do my best to empathize from my own experience of grief and the loss of a parent at an early age. But it’s not the same. With any other death, whether by disease, at any age, accident, at any age, old age…there’s no one to blame but God or the Fates or the randomness of existence.
The shadow that is cast by suicide, that leads you to doubt yourself, may cause you to withdraw, or convince you to keep silent…Only in the company of other survivors may you find that you feel able to open up and share your deepest fears and other emotions that lurk in the shadow.
Speaking about it is the path to healing. Reaching out is the first step. You’re here tonight. After the program, introduce yourself to someone you haven’t seen before – offer and open yourself to support.
Then, go back to your community and family and talk about the one whom you loved and who is now gone. Because beneath all the feelings of shock, guilt, anger and grief, there is an underlying love, and years of memories – many of them truly wonderful, fun, joyous memories. It hurts so much because we loved them so much, it hurts so much because we shared so much. They will never cease to be deeply treasured parts of our families and our lives. We don’t hesitate to remember, and regale others with our memories of grandparents, teachers, elders now long gone. Why must we avoid the memories of one who has died by suicide – often way too young?
Tell about their talents, the things that made you laugh, their importance in your life. Cultivate the beautiful memories and create rituals, moments when you share them with the world, or in your family, and allow them to become the inspiration to carry on. Some of the traditional ritual times may bring more renewed grief and reminders of all that has been lost: Christmas, birthdays and the like. So make new ones.
One family whose son died by suicide made the anniversary of his death a time to open their home, and invite their community and his friends in. Stories are shared – and they’ve heard sweet stories of things that they were not previously aware, and they get to share their own memories. And that family has also dedicated their time and resources to assisting others and working with youth at risk. This way they keep the memories alive and use the love energy for good.
Memory is our great gift. In my tradition, when we speak of someone who has died, we say: “may her memory be for a blessing”. We are expressing our wish that the memory of the beloved now gone should bring blessing to one’s life – blessings of joy and gratitude for the gift of their lives, for however long they were with us…blessings of healing, by filling in the holes left by their physical absence. And the blessing of continuing to bring Goodness into the world in their name…
I have found that healing arises when we find a way to make meaning of the loss – and of the life that was lost. I often share that I came to my work in the field of death and dying as a result of my father’s death – from cancer – when he was 49 years old. My work doesn’t explain why he had to die, and remember that is not a helpful question. However, by devoting a good portion of my professional and personal life to confronting mortality and supporting people in grief, I feel that I am making powerful and positive use of my experience of my father’s early death. This is what I mean by making meaning of the loss.
The people who create this event – HOPE Lights the Night – have found this way to make meaning of the loss of their children and other loved ones to suicide. Many of you have dedicated your time and energy to programs that bring awareness and offer support in the field of mental illness. Some have worked in the schools to help our youth, a particularly vulnerable population, learn about their options when they feel that they can’t go on… or how to seek help for a friend who expresses despair.
Not all of us are activists – or suited to work with organizations of these kinds. There are so many ways to make meaning: let yourself be inspired by the memory of your loved one, and you’ll find how they want to live on through you, how making them your teacher will inspire something you do or become.
If it’s still too early for you – hang on to my message until the right time. The healing can only begin after we’ve allowed ourselves to fully grieve.
I bless you to remember those you have lost … with love. May you live the life you wished for them. A life of joy and discovery, a life without pain and despair, a life that brings Light into this world, and touches others’ lives with goodness. This too is how they can become your teachers. May you become a vessel, not only for your Light, but also for the light of the souls whose memories you carry and whose blessings you bestow on all the lives that you will touch.