Judaism and Suicide Loss: Providing Specialized Support for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day
14 Dec 2022 — 4 min read
By Chaplain Barry E. Pitegoff, BCC
AFSP Applauds Passage of Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Reauthorization Act and the Law Enforcement De-Escalation Training Act
Each suicide loss has a unique story. Yet, within each story is a common denominator of grief. What suicide loss survivors share in common can help forge connection, and open each other’s arms and hearts so that no one feels they must be alone in their journey of healing.
It is helpful for survivors of suicide loss to band together in both universal and specific ways. For instance, at many events held for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (also known as “Survivor Day”) each November, participants are divided into smaller breakout groups specific to their own experiences – by “loss type,” for instance, with those who have lost a parent in one group, those who have lost a child in another, etc.
As a Jewish, Board-Certified Chaplain, working as a hospital chaplain in upstate New York and on the board of Neshama, the Association of Jewish Chaplains (Neshama is a Hebrew word for “soul”), I know that Jewish survivors of suicide loss have unique considerations in regard to their loss. For this reason, for the past two years, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Capital Region (NY) chapter has organized a virtual Survivor Day event specifically geared to the Jewish population, called “Through a Jewish Lens.” This year, building off the success of 2021, we offered an expanded program. On Sunday, November 20, 50 Zoom screens opened from 16 states plus the District of Columbia.
The unique considerations faced by Jewish survivors of suicide loss may not be so obvious to others. One very practical consideration is that Saturday is the Jewish sabbath, and Survivor Day has traditionally been held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, meaning that many religious Jews were unable to participate.
Interestingly, another consideration is that Jewish survivors remember the date of their loved one’s death according to the Jewish/Hebrew calendar (based on the cycles of the moon). The Jewish calendar date anniversary of the loss is referred to by its Yiddish name, Yahrzeit. But Jewish survivors cannot avoid also remembering the date of their loved one’s death on the secular calendar – so Jewish survivors travel their path with two death dates emblazoned on their hearts.
Acknowledgment of loss isn’t limited to the two calendar days. Four times a year in synagogues, Jewish mourners (both recent and not-so-recent) recite together the Yizkor prayer. Yizkor means, “You will remember.” The name of the departed is inserted in the prayer.
Judaism is a religion of community, and Jewish prayers related to mourning also require a prayer quorum, called a minyan, of at least ten Jewish adults.
Judaism is a religious community that respects that all deaths are sacred events. Modern Judaism shares a common space with the modern iterations of other mainstream religions in that death by suicide is considered death by an illness – not a death by sin.
Many Jewish survivors of suicide loss yearn to share their experiences with other Jewish survivors and consider uniquely-Jewish questions. I participated in our Jewish Survivor Day program both this year and last as a facilitator and as a member of the Planning Committee. This year, I opened the program with a kavanah, a keynote intent reflection-prayer. It is a blessing that a life event that can question faith can also reinforce faith.
Our virtual breakout rooms this year were organized by length of time since loss. Facilitators for our breakout rooms were ordained rabbis, board-certified Jewish chaplains, and rabbi-chaplains. We are blessed that our facilitators for this virtual event reflected a wide geographic footprint. Connections were made for participants who wanted to stay in touch. Facilitators started with a set of suggested discussion questions, some completely open-ended and some based on a video screened just prior to the breakout sessions, the AFSP-produced film Pathways to Healing: Hope after Suicide Loss. The film shared the story of one family and community's loss and how each person was impacted differently and worked to process their grief and move forward. I facilitated a virtual breakout room of survivors whose loss occurred between one and three years ago. Their reflections understandably included the sadness of first-time synagogue ritual experiences, such as reciting the Yizkor in their congregations, and reflections on the funeral, a symbolic gash fresh in their hearts.
Discussion questions during the event also included references to the Torah reading from the most recent Sabbath, the day before, which happened to discuss the death of the matriarch Sarah. Interestingly, the name of the reading is the "Life of Sarah" – so as a focus, we considered the length of one's life and how the person lived, as opposed to the circumstances surrounding the death of our loved ones. Participants shared stories in tribute to their lost ones.
The upcoming Jewish holiday of Chanukah, which this year begins at sundown on December 18, was in the minds of our participants. Chanukah is traditionally considered a joyful holiday. This may be challenging for those who are grieving. The essence of Chanukah is that a small group of Jewish defenders stood up against the overwhelming odds of oppressors who outnumbered them. Jewish survivors of suicide loss, who may feel the weight of overwhelming odds against them at this time of year, may derive some comfort from the Chanukah story. Facilitators at our event had Scripture available as one reassuring tool. Consider the example of Psalm 126, Verse 5: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
The end of our special Survivor Day program included a reading of the names of lost loved ones against an image of a burning candle – a reminder of a traditional yahrzeit candle – as an opportunity to reflect on the day.
The event was a huge success, and of great comfort to many. The breakout rooms enabled storytelling and the sharing of new rituals, such as memorial tributes related to the favorite activities of those who are lost. Tear ducts opened, and warm connections were made.
Sunday, November 19, 2023 has already been reserved for the third annual “Through a Jewish Lens” Survivor Day program. If you would like more information about the 2023 program, please contact [email protected] or connect with AFSP’s Capital Region (NY) chapter.