There is no teenager who should ever face this kind of situation alone or simply with his or her peers. Adults, even adults in pain, need to step up and take care of kids.
By Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D.
Last February, a beloved member of our community committed suicide. He didn’t die, or pass on. He killed himself, which is always an act of violence. He left behind questions about his motivation; about what secrets he had held, but no note.
This was an amazing kid: bright, friendly, popular, and involved. His friends included his Temple family, his school friends, his camp family, BBYO, his beloved older brother, a warm and loving extended family and a mother who is psychologically astute, attentive, and involved. He was, literally, the last kid who anyone might have suspected would kill himself.
The sense of shock in the community was palpable. His death took our breath away.
I don’t intend this article to be voyeuristic. It’s not about THIS death. I hope to be helpful to our communities by thinking about what we need to consider after any death out of time, and especially the death of a young person or a death through suicide. For we are going to continue to face this, in our congregations, camps and communities.
Adolescent suicide is on the rise in America, no community is exempt, and the Jewish community must consider its response – and how to create best practices in the face of this increasing threat to our families and our children. Data indicates the suicide is a communicable disease. Suicide impacts our communities, our clergy and our camps. We need to think about prevention and we need to think about our response. Our community deserves no less.
Many have written on suicide prevention. My intention in this article is to focus on suicide response, what a community can and should do for its families, its clergy and its kids.
Now, almost 6 months later, I find myself thinking about what we did well, and what we did not so well. I also find myself wondering if every congregation, every community, feels the isolation and sense of unreality we did. How can we help each other, both before and after the fact?
Some of our responses were very good. The community came together for his peers immediately. Both BBYO and his Temple youth group met that night. The teens were frightened and sad, confused. At both meetings, our Rabbi suggested that every kid take a notecard and write the name of an unrelated adult, one the teen KNEW could be relied upon. They were then assigned to find that person’s phone number and tack it to their bedroom wall. This adult was the person they could call on, any time, for any problem. He explained that the person might change, but that each kid should always know whom that person is for them.
The Rabbi repeated this instruction at the funeral, where there were many more teens and parents.
We met with the younger kids the student had impacted through his work in our Religious School. We taught how to write a condolence note (a sentence that says I’m so sorry; a sentence or a paragraph with a story or a statement about the person who has died; a sentence that says I’m so sorry), and had them write two: the first to his family and the second to themselves, as a way to mark and recognize that they also had a loss. This class was led by a psychologist, as the teachers were simply too upset to face the children’s questions. Instead, the teachers also participated, writing their own letters of condolence. We also had the children make notecards with their “Go-To” person, and told them to get the phone numbers and tack them up in their bedrooms.
Our President told the Rabbi and Cantor to take some personal time after the period of shiva, understanding that they had experienced some real trauma themselves. They didn’t…
So we acted well in the emergency phase of the crisis. We met the immediate needs of the family, of his BBYO and Temple community. We made sure there was room and tissues and people to lead the Shiva minyanim.
Some of our responses were inadequate: We didn’t meet with other parents for about a month. This meeting should have happened in the first week. Our entire community needed to come together to talk, and parents were especially frightened. They wanted and needed to know what to say to their sons and daughters, to cry together. Our community leadership was overwhelmed, but we needed to do more for them.
The local schools sent buses of students to the funeral, with very few adults. We should have stationed adults everywhere, to hold kids they didn’t know, to be support for these children. We should have clearly told the schools that we wanted parents and teachers with their kids. There is no teenager who should ever face this kind of situation alone or simply with his or her peers. Adults, even adults in pain, need to step up and take care of kids.
We didn’t recognize the impact of the loss on our clergy and educators, nor did we insist that they find time and space to have their own very sad feelings. The clergy stand in front of a grieving family, hold them, listen to the tears, counsel them. They simply don’t have time to process their own sense of loss and shock. As an Adjunct Lecturer at HUC-JIR, I know that we teach clergy about self-care. But understanding self-care and doing it are very different things. As a psychologist, I know that unprocessed emotion simply comes out at another time.
We haven’t continued to reach out to youth and parent groups, which implies that we believe they’re no longer suffering. They are. Psychological literature tells us that the typical life cycle of grief is 18 months, and that complicated grief takes longer. While we may not need to be holding community meetings now, we do need to be aware that this loss is still active, still frightening our parents and our kids.
As we think about this and other crises, going forward, we must recognize that this kind of community horror will continue. Rabbis and Cantors are taught about suicide in school, but there is simply no way to prepare oneself for the actual experience.
But our Jewish professionals can help each other. There could and should be some way that clergy can find out who is experiencing a suicide in their community, so that those who have experience can reach out and give structure and support to those in the throes. This could be a list-serv, a support group. It could happen through schools or clergy/educator associations. We need to recognize that professionals need to have the time and structure to grieve, and they are unlikely to create this time for themselves. There could and should be post-graduate training in congregational and community response to suicide. We need to find ways to come together, over the long haul of grief, recognizing that all of us have suffered, from the camp director to clergy to parents and teachers to peers. It’s all we have.
Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D. is a psychologist who has been active in Jewish Education for over 3 decades. She teaches in her home synagogue, Temple Sinai of Stamford, CT, and at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.