Passover is here. It is usually one of my favorite holidays. I love the ritual of preparing the house, the smell of the food and the joyous atmosphere at the Seder table.
But this year is different. Passover begins only three days after the one year anniversary of my father’s suicide.
My father was trapped in his own Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is defined as “narrow places or straits.” And that is where my father found himself. At 72 years old, he was in the midst of a deep depression coupled with overwhelming anxiety. Those illnesses of the mind left him feeling shackled, unable to see a way out of the suffering and the pain. And on April 20, 2015, he took his own life.
And here I stand, just one year later, still in the midst of my own exodus. I am traveling through this unfamiliar, uncomfortable and at times uninhabitable terrain of traumatic grief.
At the Passover Seder we will read about the four children. One who was wise, one who was simple, one who was wicked and one who did not know how to ask. It is this last one that resonates most with me this year. I did not know that my father was in danger of hurting himself. I was not prepared to read into the warning signs that he presented. I did not know to ask him if he was considering suicide.
I don’t say all of this from a place of guilt, but rather from a place of regret. I have learned so much about mental illness and suicide prevention in the aftermath of his death. And I know now that the signs were present, both the overt and the subtle. And if I had the chance to do it all over, my father might be here with us today.
Every 12.8 minutes in this country another precious life is lost to suicide. On average there are 117 suicides per day. Each year we lose approximately 42,773 Americans to suicide.
How can we change that? It begins with honoring our sacred obligation to reach out to those who find themselves in places of darkness. We can no longer afford to harden our hearts to the suffering that mental illness can bring, acting as Pharaohs, feeding further into judgement, stigma and shame. We issue too many decrees in the form of platitudes and easy answers. “So let it be written, so let it be done” is not a plan for recovery. For some, the strength to take even the first step on the long exodus toward a land of more promise is too hard. Their pain is far too great a burden. So we must accompany them.
And when we are witness to suffering that causes us concern, when we feel somebody is in danger of harming themselves, we must know how to ask these four questions:
Have you had thoughts about suicide?
Have you thought about a plan to take your own life? (This speaks to suicidal ideation, means and timing.)
Have you attempted suicide before?
Do you have access to a gun or other means that you could use?
Asking such blunt and hard questions may leave us feeling “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” just like Moses. But we must strengthen our stance, imbue our lips with courage and ask anyway. We must be unambiguous. Because asking these questions can decrease the risk of suicide, simply by showing someone that we care, that we are willing to listen and that we want to help.
This Passover, let us pledge to no longer be “one who does not know to ask.”
I tell the story of losing my father in Mitzrayim in the hopes that all I have learned since can free another soul from despair. The plague of darkness can touch anyone. None of us is immune. So let our words be a source of light, life and hope. Know when to ask, know what to ask. With Mental Health Awareness Month coming in May, it’s a particularly good time to learn.
If someone you love is struggling, know the signs that he or she might be in crisis. For more information please visit The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and learn how to respond to these questions by enrolling in a mental health first aid course.
Deborah Greene lives in Superior, CO, with her husband Rabbi Fred Greene (of Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder) and their three daughters. She lost her father Lowell Herman to suicide on April 20, 2015. She is devoted to raising awareness about suicide loss and mental illness. She chronicles her journey at reflectingoutloud.net