Almost 18 years ago, my youngest brother, Tom, died by suicide; he shot himself in the head. A recovering heroin addict who’d been clean 13 years, he relapsed after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not long before that, he had fallen in love with a woman who later left him, and he sank into a major depression. With that lethal combination of addiction and depression, he walked a tightrope that ultimately collapsed.
I was despondent. My parents discovered him in the condo he rented in Florida; Tom looked so peaceful my father thought he was asleep, but upon closer examination, one could see that his gray sectional was soaked in blood.
My family was prominent in the Detroit community and consumed with appearances. My mom thought we would be judged if people knew the truth. So, instead of having the traditional closed casket, my brother’s casket was open; which allowed people to presume he overdosed and, indeed, the prospect of his overdosing had been my worst fear. His exit wound was so high up that an extra-large yarmulke covered it, and the funeral home switched the body’s direction, so viewers couldn’t see how swollen his head was (there was a huge spray of roses behind the casket).
My brother’s funeral was packed; he was handsome, funny, intelligent and winsome. In many ways, he was exceptional. No matter. Suicide is an equal opportunity employer, just like addiction. His death cast a wide shadow of misery over my life, and its ripple effects are still being felt.
The rabbi who officiated at my brother’s funeral was Daniel B. Syme, and it was his first eulogy of a suicide since his own brother’s funeral more than 20 years earlier.
I delivered one of the main eulogies; my focus was intently on Tom. I wanted people to remember his charm and effervescence, his ribald sense of humor — how he carried himself with poise and style, how he could engender endearments readily with his quick, witty retorts, like the time a pretty blond neighbor said hello to him in his parking lot. “How’s your boyfriend?” he asked. “Really good!” she said. “Sorry to hear that!” Tom replied.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of my brother. I remember just after his death how my house was packed to the brim with flowers, my voicemail so full no more messages could be had. I looked around my living room at all the flowers, thinking if only Tom had a clue how important he was, how much he mattered. I thought, too, of our fragility, the tender thread by which all our lives hang and how important it is to tell people they matter.
I started writing poetry about addiction, depression and family secrets. To this day, I think shame was an accessory to his death. Not long after, Heinz Prechter, a Detroit automotive executive, hanged himself with a vacuum cleaner cord. It made headlines in all the local papers. Wally, his widow, became a vocal advocate for bipolar disorder and used her loss to rally for the cause; she began the Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Fund, which has more than $20 million invested in fighting this illness. Later, we set up a fund at Common Ground in Tom’s memory, but there was still a lot of silence in the family. My father did not want me to cry in front of my mother, thinking it was bad for her health.
Last week, one of my dearest friends took me for dinner to celebrate my birthday — and she gave me a Kate Spade credit card case. Kate Spade’s suicide left me bereft — and I’m no fashionista. It was a tangible reminder of how prevalent suicide is in America. And then, Anthony Bourdain hanged himself. It doesn’t stop. Before Tom’s death, I never even thought suicide was an option. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about suicide and its prevention, too.
According to Syme, in America, one person dies by suicide every 11.8 minutes. The number of suicides in the U.S. rose from 43,000 to 45,000 last year.
In spite of all the programs in place, its growth is especially prevalent among teenage and college youth, particularly girls. And this does not even address those in the military or blue-collar people who find themselves unemployed or unemployable.
What have I done differently? First, in my work as a teacher, if my students are depressed (and invariably, it happens every semester), I’ve learned to ask if they’re suicidal. I also ask if they have a plan (a therapist friend helped me write out a contract for one student to sign before the police were brought in). I always contact the department head and follow the institution’s protocol, which is critical. Before Tom’s death, I thought broaching the subject was a bad thing; now, I know it’s necessary to talk about it — bring it into the light.
I joined the executive committee of a program called A Single Soul, which is devoted to suicide prevention. The title is derived from the Talmud’s directive that to save one life is to save the world. It was established by Syme, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. He’s now the program’s director, continuing a lifelong mission since his brother’s death.
The advisory committee consists of 36 members, which is the double of 18, which stands for chai, or life. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame is the honorary national chairman; Yarrow also has known the loss of a loved one by suicide.
Such loss is far more common than I’d ever dreamt. Years ago, I was in a car with three coworkers. We’d been colleagues for nearly a year. During the ride, one casually mentioned that she’d lost a sibling to suicide. My other coworker chimed in that he, too, had a sibling die by suicide. And so, then, did I.
I can’t pretend to know the root causes of suicide although I can certainly point to contributing factors: the alienation in our technological society, the pressure to conform, the importance of competing in a global market, the materialism of our culture and the fact that depression is an actual illness. The list goes on. Who knows? Even with chemical imbalances, ultimately, the cause is elusive.
Advances are being made in understanding the root causes of depression and suicidal ideation at many hospitals throughout the U.S. Still, the rates keep rising. What can I do? Talk about it. Educate people. Write this.
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Cindy Frenkel teaches writing and literature at Oakland Community College and Lawrence Technological University.