International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day provides connection and support to loved ones left behind.

Losing a child to suicide is a tragedy no parent wants to imagine. Yet, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second leading cause for people ages 10-34. Last year, the number of suicides by males in the 15-24 age group increased by 8%, according to recent data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. And, for every person who dies by suicide, a circle of family members and friends are left with overwhelming grief and unanswerable questions.

In 1999, Congress designated the Saturday before Thanksgiving as International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day to provide support and connection for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. This year, on Saturday, Nov. 19, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) sponsors virtual and in-person events in communities across the world.

A Survivors’ Event with a Jewish Perspective

This year, the second annual “Survivors Day — Through a Jewish Lens” event will take place via Zoom on Sunday, Nov. 20, from noon-2 p.m. EST. The timing allows people throughout the U.S. and Israel to participate.

The virtual program was initiated by Sandra Goldmeer, area director of the Capital Region NY Chapter of AFSP, who moderates the two-hour event. The purpose is two-fold: to give observant Jews an opportunity to attend a Survivors Day event and to provide a Jewish perspective on coping with the death of a loved one.

Last year, the presentation centered on the Book of Job and the Jewish viewpoint on suffering. This year, the focus will be on the weekly Torah portion “Chayei Sarah,” the Hebrew phrase for “life of Sarah.” While the reading paradoxically begins with the death of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, the text recounts situations that exemplify Sarah’s influence on her family and the legacy she left.

“This reading encourages us to honor people for the way they lived rather than the way they died,” Goldmeer said, “and it gives people a chance to connect Jewishly.”

A Tragic Loss

Sam Gawel had a ready smile and a way of making people feel at home wherever he went. A senior at Dartmouth majoring in earth and environmental sciences and anthropology, Sam was an avid outdoor adventurist who loved hiking, mountaineering and rock climbing.

Sam Gawel
Sam Gawel

He had a girlfriend, an abundance of meaningful friendships and loving relationships with his parents, Leah and Randy, and his sister, Sophia. He was looking forward to studying atmospheric sciences in grad school and working to create a better, safer world. On Sept. 21, the former Detroiter and graduate of Frankel Jewish Academy died by suicide at the age of 21.

Sam had no history of depression; he showed no warning signs. On the day he died, he updated his resume, reached out to professors at prospective graduate schools, finished his homework, did a load of laundry and worked out at the gym. He confirmed plans for the upcoming days and weeks; baking bread with a friend, grabbing meals with fraternity brothers, rock climbing with his girlfriend, substitute teaching for Hebrew School and returning to Michigan to watch a football game.

“He literally lived his life until the moment he died,” said his mother, Leah Gawel. “His technological footprint was like any other college student’s. We saw nothing of concern.”

Surviving the Loss of a Friend

When Max Merzin, 33, learned his best friend had recently died by suicide, it was the third time he lost a close friend to suicide over the past two decades. Although his friend had made previous attempts to end his life, he had just returned from a European vacation and seemed to be doing well.

Max Merzin
Max Merzin

“He loved his trip, and he had a new job, but it’s hard to tell what someone is really thinking,” said Merzin, a native Detroiter who recently moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The two young men, friends since middle school, had fallen out of touch but reconnected at a farewell party for Merzin last summer.

“He was very sad, crying, but I thought it was because I was leaving,” Merzin said. “In retrospect, I realize his emotion at the party was because he knew it was the last time he would see me and my family.”

The last time he lost a friend to suicide, Merzin sought counseling to help him deal with the guilt he was feeling.

“It can be very traumatizing,” he said. “You have to tell yourself it wasn’t your fault, that the person was going to do what he did.”

Losing close friends has affected Merzin in various ways.

“It’s caused some interesting reactions in my life,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard to make new friends because you never know when you’re going to lose someone.”

Solace for Survivors

For years Ethan Bean struggled with various mental health challenges that included anxiety, depression, ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although his parents, Erik and Stacey Bean, provided professional help and unwavering love and support, Ethan was ultimately unable to bear his pain, dying by suicide four years ago at the age of 17.

Ethan and Erik Bean at Lake in the Clouds in the Upper Peninsula in 2018
Ethan and Erik Bean at Lake in the Clouds in the Upper Peninsula in 2018

After Ethan’s death, Erik and Stacey found comfort in a local suicide survivors’ group, which they attended regularly for three years. They continue to get together with some of the other participants, who understand their experience as no one else can.

“It’s a club nobody wants to be a member of, but if you find out you’re not alone, it provides some relief,” Bean said.

While the shock of Sam’s death is still recent, Leah Gawel and her family are grateful for the outpouring of love and support they received from people in their New Hampshire hometown and their former Metro Detroit community.

“Our community was strong and beautiful; we received unbelievable support,” she said, “and the Detroit Jewish community has been wonderful. People flocked in from far and wide, taking cars, buses, trains and planes with very little notice.”

From Tragedy to Advocacy

Diane Orley’s email signature includes the words, “Be kind … for everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about.”

She knows this from personal experience after losing her 20-year-old son George to suicide nine years ago.

Diane and George Orley
Diane and George Orley

“George had bipolar disorder and with that comes mania and deep depression,” she said. “With all the good he had in his life, at that moment, he felt his life wasn’t worth living and he couldn’t compartmentalize that how he felt at the moment would change and things would get better.”

The Orleys were instrumental in creating the Wolverine Support Network at the University of Michigan, a peer-to-peer support program that was subsequently also implemented at Michigan State University (Spartan Support Network) and college campuses throughout the country.

“It’s been proven that peer support saves lives,” said Diane Orley. “Kids need to know that they are not alone in their feelings and have a safe, nonjudgmental place to share.”

Diane Orley finds solace in seeing her other two children enjoying their lives and in knowing George is no longer in pain.

“We felt we did everything we could for our son, so, knowing that, I live in peace,” she said. “I miss him every day, but I know he is where he needs to be.”

To channel his grief in a positive direction, Erik Bean wrote Ethan’s Healthy Mind Express: A Children’s First Mental Health Primer and founded the Ethan Bean Mental Wellness Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental wellness initiatives for children and teens.

“The foundation was a way to give back to the community and keep Ethan’s legacy alive,” Bean said.

Shattering the Stigma

There was a time when people who died by suicide were barred from Jewish cemeteries in certain cultures. While this is no longer the case in most communities, suicide still carries a stigma that makes it harder for survivors to receive support and keeps many individuals from seeking help.

Missy Bean
Missy Bean

“Talking about it is the most important thing,” says Missy Bean, LMSW, a trauma-certified clinical therapist in Oakland County. (She is not related to Erik Bean).

“Suicide and mental illness really need to be treated like a medical condition; if someone has an earache or strep throat, we treat them.”

Bean believes education and awareness is necessary to improve the current shortage of mental health resources and services.

“We need more mental health providers, and we need to make services available to everyone regardless of insurance,” she said.

For parents, being open about their child’s death is a way to dispel the cloud of negativity that often accompanies suicide.

“Everything’s a stigma until it happens to you; heart disease used to be a stigma,” said Erik Bean. “It’s not a controllable event; mental illness can happen to anyone, and some of these kids never even had mental health issues.”

Leah Gawel tells people her son died by suicide and encourages others to avoid mincing words.

“As long as we treat that word as taboo and dance around the facts, we become a part of the problem,” she said. “At Sam’s funeral, I told our friends and family that we wanted to be clear about how Sam died, and we wanted the word suicide to be used freely so that it never needs to be used again to describe another unnecessary death. If we need to shout it from the rooftops or toss it across social media in order for people to pay attention, then by all means do.”

Words Matter

Language reflects how our culture views certain topics, and it changes according to current perceptions. For example, we no longer define a person by their disability; we say, “a person with autism” instead of “an autistic person.” The language of suicide has changed in much the same way.

Instead of saying a person “committed suicide,” a word associated with crimes or sins, the appropriate phrase is “died by suicide,” just as a person might die of cancer.

“Words are important,” Leah Gawel said. “They hold weight … Pretending suicide is something else is dangerous. We need to call it what it is and address it head on. Perhaps if we are honest about suicide and we push it to the front and center, then we stunt its power. We can end this horrible epidemic that is robbing our youth of their futures.”

Principles of Prevention

While it is impossible to foresee or prevent suicide in many instances, certain prevention protocols can be effective for those who are open to help.

One of the greatest myths about suicide is that talking about it will encourage a person to end their life. Not only is this a fallacy, but research shows discussing the subject openly can save lives while avoiding the topic may discourage people from asking for help.

This is one of the principles of safeTALK, a suicide alertness training program that teaches participants how to engage with at-risk individuals and connect them with the appropriate resources and professional help.

Rabbi Yarden Blumstein
Rabbi Yarden Blumstein

“There are three important questions to ask someone who appears to be struggling: Are you thinking about suicide, do you have a plan, and do you have a time frame?” says Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, certified safeTALK trainer and director of UMatter, a Friendship Circle of Michigan program designed to empower teens and remove the stigmas surrounding mental health challenges and suicide. “Those are their barriers. If you can deactivate their immediate plan, it elevates their safety in a serious way.”

While many people contemplating suicide may not actually want to die, they cannot see another way to escape the pain or depression that is making life unbearable. According to Blumstein, one of the goals of suicide prevention is to help the person get past that moment so they can make an informed decision.

“It’s important to let the person know we’re not taking away their choice,” Blumstein said. “There’s a point where they have to decide whether they want to live, but maybe surviving is an option. We want to empower people so they can understand both options.”

According to Missy Bean, many adolescents have suicidal thoughts at some point, but parents or friends are not equipped to assess whether the person intends to put their ideas into action.

“Untrained individuals should take the person seriously and have them assessed by a mental health professional,” she said.

Blumstein cites a recent survey at a local high school, where 600 out of 3,500 students said they had no one to turn to in a time of crisis. He urges parents to make sure their kids have a trusted adult they can talk to.

He also believes in commemorating mental health milestones with your children, such as refraining from self-harm for a period of time.

“In mental health, we talk about those who tried and those who died,” he said. “I wish more people who are living and succeeding would be acknowledged and celebrated.”

Suicide Survivor “etiquette”

Many people feel awkward talking to someone whose family member has died by suicide and even well-meaning friends can say hurtful things. Here are some suggestions from various professionals, organizations and survivors.

  • When words fail, simply say “I’m sorry,” as you would to anyone who lost a loved one.
  • Don’t ask questions about how or why the person ended their life.
  • Don’t say the person is “in a better place” or use other hurtful cliches.
  • If someone wants to talk, listen, but do not pressure them to open up.
  • Keep in touch after the initial grieving period has passed.
  • Share photos and memories of the person who died.
  • Never say you know how the person feels unless you have also lost someone to suicide.
  • Avoid judging or placing blame on the parent or the person who died.

Legacies of Love

“We all need to be compassionate and kind,” Diane Orley said. “It’s not always easy, but sometimes a warm smile or random act of kindness can really make a difference.”

For Leah Gawel, continuing Sam’s legacy of kindness and good works through the decades he would have lived and beyond is a priority.

“How do we make sure his death is used for good? How can we be kinder, more environmentally conscious, make others feel comfortable?” she asks. “Focus on what’s important, tell people you love them every day.”

Max Merzin makes it a point to check in with friends on a regular basis, especially those who may be struggling.

“Put it on your calendar,” he says. “We all get caught up in our own lives and it’s easy to forget, but you’re doing it for both of you. And if someone is at risk, tell their family and friends to make sure they are bombarded with love.”

For more information or to register for the AFSP “Survivors Day — Through a Jewish Lens” event on Sunday, Nov. 20, from noon-2 p.m., visit https://through-a-jewish-lens.isosld.afsp.org.

RESOURCES
• 24/7 suicide and crisis hotline: 988
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
• Crisis Text Line: text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor
• LGBTQ Crisis Hotlines: 866-488-7386 (Trevor Project Lifeline) or text START to 678-678
• Transgender Hotline staffed by transgender people: 877-565-8860
• Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255
• Garrett’s Space Wellness Program: 734-709-7684
• Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House (a program of Friendship Circle of Michigan):
(248) 788-7878 or visit www.friendshipcircle.org/friendshiphouse
• UMatter (support and empowerment for teens and young adults, sponsored by Friendship Circle of Michigan in partnership with the Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety): Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, (248) 788-7878 ext. 208, or email yarden@friendshipcircle.org or umatter@friendshipcircle.org or visit www.friendshipcircle.org/umatter
• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Call 888-333-AFSP (2377) or visit https://afsp.org/

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