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First Person: The Stigma of Suicide and the Redemption of Speech

After more than half a century of struggle with mental illness, mired in despair, my father died by suicide.

It’s the first night of Passover. At our seder sits a Cuban-American schoolteacher who recounts his family’s flight to freedom in the late 1960s — their fears and hopes, the risks taken, the loved ones left behind.
A little while later, I watch my father as he chews a mouthful of matzah, slowly, deliberately, with eyes closed, tears streaming down his face as he imagines redemption from his own personal mitzrayim. That memory from my youth, along with many others, emerged in the days leading up to my father’s 10th yahrzeit that I recently observed.
On Pesach, we tell the story of our redemption, we bring the Exodus to life with words and song and food, to feel as if we ourselves have come out of Egypt. My father loved exploring stories of redemption at our seders — from the Exodus to our time. 
My father devoted his life to alleviating the suffering of the marginalized and oppressed. He marched in Selma and organized for Soviet Jewry; he worked with underprivileged youth as a social worker and invited the “stranger” to our seders.
My father suffered, too. From a young age, he struggled with chronic depression. That was his personal mitzrayim. And even as  my father was able to help so many people profoundly change their lives and find a way forward, his suffering was a bondage from which he was never redeemed.
After more than half a century of struggle with mental illness, mired in despair, my father died by suicide.
For years, the cause of my father’s death was hard to talk about, hard to name. It still is. The stigma around mental illness and suicide in our society is entrenched. As a chaplain and a rabbi, I have counseled many people with mood and personality disorders — in mental health clinics, hospitals and synagogues
I’ve processed my father’s death with friends, therapists, rabbis and pastoral caregivers. I know that mental illness does not reflect on the character of a person who suffers from it or on his or her  family. I know that one in four Americans will experience mental illness in a given year. And still, I feel shame speaking publicly about my family history.
My father bore the weight of his shame alone. It was not something spoken about in our home or community. The stigma of mental illness perpetuated and exacerbated the shame and isolation.
That toxic combination was one piece of what led my father to the depths of despair and ultimately to take his own life. There are so many others who suffer alone. In the United States, a person dies by suicide every 13.3 minutes, claiming more than 39,500 lives each year.
In the 12th chapter of Exodus, during the final plague — the death of the firstborn — the Torah describes the wailing that was heard, for every household was struck; none was spared: “Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit.” So many of us have been touched by suicide or mental illness. And yet, rarely do we talk about these topics in public.
During my year of mourning after my father’s death, I felt very much alone as a survivor of his suicide. Then one day I saw a poster on the subway promoting an event run by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — the Out of the Darkness Overnight walk — an 18-mile walk around New York City from dusk to dawn to raise awareness and funding for suicide prevention.
All around me people, including myself, carried names and photographs of loved ones. A few miles into the walk, I bumped into friends whom I’d had no idea were personally affected by suicide. We walked together through the night until the first rays of day appeared in the eastern sky.
Along the way we shared our stories. We came out of the darkness 2,000 strong, knowing we were not alone. As we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River, I thought of our ancestors leaving behind the darkness of Egypt as they crossed the sea. 
The Zohar teaches that while the Israelites were in Egypt, speech was in exile and later redeemed. We see this transformation in Moshe, who at first has great trouble expressing himself verbally, yet learns to tell the story of his people’s suffering. And we see it in the people of Israel, who learn to cry out to God in their anguish and dare to dream of liberation.
Rabbi Isaac Luria highlights this with a clever wordplay, teaching that the word “Pesach” can be read as two words: “Peh sach,” meaning the mouth that speaks. On Pesach, we learn to tell our stories in hopeful, healing and redemptive ways.
My partner Annie and I named our new daughter Zohar after my father: Robert is a Germanic name meaning bright with glory, and Zohar means brightness in Hebrew. My father’s flame certainly burned brightly.
In the letter we read at her naming ceremony, we told Zoe about her grandfather’s beautiful and painful life. How I wish she could meet him and learn from him directly.
I know my father would have been in love with her. We will bring blessing to my father’s memory by telling his stories.
When you tell your story, you never know who will be touched by your words; your story might save someone’s life. This Pesach, I invite you take time to reflect: What are the stories of suffering and liberation in your life and your community that are waiting to be voiced? This Pesach, may our holy power of speech be a vehicle for redemption.

Rabbi Yosef Goldman is a rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. This piece was adapted from a sermon delivered at BZBI (bzbi.org) on the Shabbat before Passover, and originally published by the Jewish Exponent on April 7, 2015.

Photo caption: The author’s father is sitting with the author (left) and his twin brother on their 9-month birthday.


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