A few weeks ago a professional window cleaner came to work at my house in central Jerusalem. The window guy was an affable, middle-aged, native English speaker. After a brief episode of Jewish geography, he began cleaning on the top floor, working his way down to the main floor, where I was writing on my laptop at the kitchen table. When he was nearby, we engaged in a few more predictable exchanges: where we were born, when we made aliyah and so on.
Then he put down his cleaning tools, turned to me and asked, “You have kids?” I told him that my daughter lived in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv.
My answer did not suffice. He responded with, “Is that it, or do you have more?” There would be nothing unsettling in his question, especially in the Land of Israel where we are commanded ”to be fruitful and multiply,” were it not for the fact that I used to have another child, a son. Eric, my first-born, died more than eight years ago, just short of his 27th birthday.
I decided to tell him: “I lost a son.” In the developed world it is unusual to lose a child. It’s a peculiar expression, a euphemism we use in relationship to death, as though Eric were a 5-year old and we were shopping at the mall and got temporarily separated. Sometimes, after hearing that I have a deceased child, a person will be quiet for a moment or change the topic entirely, perhaps not wanting to pry (even in Israel, where prying is practically a national pastime).
Others, like my window cleaner, are genuinely curious and unabashed about pursuing the matter: “How did he die?” This question prompted me to make another split-second decision: To tell or not to tell? “By suicide.” I answered, as neutrally as possible. It is hard to be neutral about suicide. I no longer use the phrase “committed suicide,” as it implies that a crime has been committed. My son was not a criminal. He was bipolar. He was also brilliant, funny, compassionate, charismatic and loving.
The window cleaner mumbled a sympathetic word or two, but as is often the case the conversation came to an abrupt halt. This decision of whether or not to mention the subject of suicide is a recurring dilemma. It is part and parcel of the conversational social life of a parent of a suicide, especially in a family-centered society like Israel. My daughter experiences similar challenges when people ask her if she has siblings.
Most people have nothing much to say after hearing about a loved one’s suicide. Death can be difficult enough to handle, but suicide is a double whammy, the taboo of taboos. It terrifies, and their association with it sometimes taints “suicide survivors.”
“Suicide survivor!” What telling terminology. Ordinarily, we think of a survivor as an individual who has pulled through after an atrocity, as in rape or cancer, or the Holocaust. But “suicide survivor” refers not to the person who survives a suicide attempt, but to the friends and family left behind after a “completed” suicide, the current buzzword in suicidology. This tells us something about the social enormity of such a death. It reflects our deepest, primal fears that the suicide might take our loved ones. When children die by “normal” means, however horrible, be it leukemia or a traffic accident, we call it a tragedy, but we do not refer to the parents and siblings as survivors. And our sympathy toward survivors is oftentimes ambivalent. A negative reaction to suicide is nearly universal except for some very specific and unusual circumstances.
Judaism is no exception. Not so long ago, Jewish suicides were buried outside the cemetery gates and were not given the respect of a proper burial and full mourning rites. As in most other mainstream religions, suicide was viewed as a sin against God. Today, Judaism defines the suicide as mentally ill and therefore not responsible for his sinful behavior. But these changes in the interpretation of Jewish law and the more general worldwide trend toward decriminalization of suicide do not eradicate pre-existing, and largely unconscious, social taboos.
There are many reasons for me to avoid the topic of suicide in casual conversation. Aside from the fact that I may be regarded as an inadequate parent, I do not enjoy making people uncomfortable. On the other hand, I am increasingly aware that when I don’t tell the truth, I am collaborating with the enemy. The enemy is silence, which stems from shame and embarrassment about mental illness. I am also being disrespectful to my son and his interrupted life. He did exist. I did have a son. My daughter had a brother. It is a grotesque lie to suggest that I had no other children.
When I talk about my son, many people react as though suicide were unusual or rare, even though statistics prove otherwise. In Israel, suicide is the second most common cause of death for young males. Among the Israel Defense Forces, there are more deaths from suicide than from actual military operations. In Israel, as in America and elsewhere, rates of automobile deaths and homicides are significantly lower than suicide rates.
The general silence on the topic may actually propel a potential suicide toward his final act, as some experts are beginning to argue. It accentuates their alienation. I recall with great regret and some anger the misguided advice I was given by both my son’s therapist and his psychopharmacologist.
They knew that my son was obsessing about suicide. At the time, I knew very little about the subject myself, so I deferred to them when they specifically instructed me to avoid discussing the issue with him. They did likewise. We will never know the effects of this strategy of silence on my son’s ultimate decision.
Judith Posner is a writer and a retired professor from York University, in Toronto. She lives in Jerusalem.