After a suicide, the devastation still lingers for loved ones.
Laura Last Solomon is still recovering from the day she learned her mother, who was 50, had hanged herself. While Marcia Last had struggled with depression, Solomon said it was not obvious when she was growing up.
“She was a college professor; she never missed work; she sailed,” Solomon said.
Nearly 30 years later, Solomon, now married with seven children, still feels the effects. Mother’s Day continues to be difficult, and it saddens her to realize her children will never know their grandmother.
“It devastated my father, and it gave me a lifelong fear that anyone who is upset about anything, even for a few minutes, is about to go kill himself,” Solomon said. “It impacts you in many ways; the most is knowing it was their choice when they could have made another choice. It should not be an option.”
Robin L., a local woman who asked that her real name not be used, was sitting in her living room when her son came downstairs and announced he had swallowed a large quantity of prescription pills.
“He said, ‘I just tried to kill myself’,” said Robin, who managed to stay calm as she took him to the nearest emergency room. He then spent a week in the psychiatric unit of Kingswood Hospital, where he was treated for depression with therapy and medication.
“When he came home, he said, ‘Thank God, I could tell you about it,’” Robin said. “Now it’s an open dialogue. He’s on great medication, and it’s all good.”
Former Detroiter Charlene Genser Lezell is still stunned and grief-stricken over the loss of her daughter, Alissa Faith (Lezell asked that Alissa’s last name not be used), who shot herself in her Florida home two years ago, leaving a husband and four children ages 11-16.
What shocked Lezell further was the discovery that her daughter, who was 40, had been conducting Internet research for several months on how to kill herself using knives and various types of firearms. Prior to shooting herself to death, Alissa had tried to end her life by stabbing herself in the chest with a knife, using a diagram of the heart she had found online. When that attempt was unsuccessful, she decided to use a gun, again following instructions published on the Internet.
Jerry and Gail Beale of West Bloomfield were aware their son Steven had been struggling with certain issues, but his suicide came without warning, following a break-up with his girlfriend.
“I had just talked to him two hours before,” Gail said.
When Steven’s girlfriend called the Beales to say he had taken the break-up hard and she was worried about him, Jerry immediately met her at his son’s Waterford home. There they discovered Steven had shot himself. He was 37.
These tragic stories reflect only a few of the more than 38,000 suicides occurring across the country each year, surpassing the number of deaths by motor vehicle accidents. The number of suicides has risen more than 31 percent in the last decade, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Suicide is now the fourth most common cause of death for adults ages 35-64, where the largest increase was found.
The highest suicide rate occurs among the elderly, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, and suicide is four times more prevalent among males than females.
While the winter holiday season can be challenging in terms of family issues and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive condition caused by decreased daylight and sun, more suicides actually occur during the spring months of March, April and May.
“Sometimes people can keep it together during the holidays,” said Susie Kamen, a Farmington Hills-based psychotherapist. “Then when the season changes and the people around them are enjoying the spring weather and sunshine, their own depression becomes more apparent.”
Depression, bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness are frequently present in those who contemplate or commit suicide. According to the National Association for Mental Illness, one of every 17 Americans lives with serious mental illness, and milder forms of depression are even more common. Prescription drugs can be helpful, but finding the right combination and dosage is challenging, and many adults stop taking their medication or take it inconsistently.
“People say suicide is selfish act — I don’t believe that’s true,” Solomon said. “People are in such pain, to them it’s a relief. When they’re in such pain that death seems better than life, they’re not thinking about survivors; they just want to end their pain.”
A person contemplating suicide may exhibit behavioral changes similar to those that accompany depression — increased isolation, falling grades or altered eating and sleep patterns — but not always.
“What’s so hard is that it doesn’t always look the way you think it would,” said Kamen, adding that sometimes life crises such as a divorce, break-up or the death of a loved one can trigger irrational thinking that can lead to suicidal thoughts or behavior.
“It’s that moment when you lose all perspective and all hope,” Kamen said.
Those who have attempted suicide in the past are more likely to try it again. Having a specific plan and the means to carry it out are also serious warning signs. In his book When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart, psychiatrist Dr. Joel Young, founder and medical director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rochester Hills, states that most suicidal behavior occurs during periods of depression.
“Under the best circumstances, it is hard to live with a mood disorder: If your child loses his job or relationship during an episode of depression, the risk of suicide increases,” writes Young, who also teaches resident physicians at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
He urges parents whose adult children are living in their home to make every effort to restrict access to prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and to avoid keeping firearms in the house.
Other risk factors include a family history of suicide or abuse; previous suicide attempts; history of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression; alcohol and substance abuse; feelings of hopelessness and isolation; physical illness; loss of a relationship, job or financial security; or unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma.
“People should be able to say, ‘I am suffering and I need help,’” said Solomon. “My mother was so busy being strong for everyone else, being the problem solver, she couldn’t ask for help.”
Solomon and others believe a stigma still exists in the Jewish community, where families refrain from revealing suicide, mental illness, domestic abuse and addiction.
“The only way it’s going to be another thing we talk about is if we start talking about it,” she said. “People used to whisper about cancer; today we participate in walks and wear pink ribbons. Why are we still whispering about suicide?”
How To Help
Mental health professionals, religious leaders and school personnel agree that it is critical to tell someone else if there is a concern that a child, friend, parent or co-worker may be at risk for suicide.
“The worst call in any suicide case is the one that wasn’t made,” said Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, recovery rabbi for the Friendship House, a program for Jewish people struggling with addiction and isolation.
Blumstein also coordinated the Upstander program, sponsored by Friendship Circle of Michigan, which teaches high school students the importance of helping those at risk by taking action instead of standing by and watching.
“To hold back information is damaging,” said Blumstein, who said most of the students said they did not know what to do if a friend expressed suicidal thoughts. “You need to tell somebody … go to a teacher, a counselor, their parents or your parents, but you can’t just hold onto it. If you see something, do something.”
Randall Gawel, principal at Berkley High School, agreed that communication is vital when there is a concern about suicide or self-harm.
“Parents should seek help and support from professionals,” he said, “and teens should look beyond the immediate impact of maybe a friend being mad at them to saving their life. Many times the behaviors or words that lead to our concern are really that person seeking support and not understanding how to ask for it. They may be angry with you for sharing what they see as a secret, but they will be alive.”
Kamen said there can be ways for parents to share the concerns their child has relayed to them without betraying a confidence, but preventing a potential tragedy should take precedence.
“It’s a burden that so many kids have,” she said, “but if someone is talking about it, it’s serious … especially if you know they have a [suicide] plan, then all bets are off. You should always tell.”
She urges parents to seek therapy if they are concerned about their child’s well-being.
“You need to be able to know you did whatever you could,” she said.
Making sure a child or teen is getting proper rest and nutrition is important if depression is present, and light boxes simulating natural daylight, which are available from Costco and other retailers, may help with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Jerry Beale believes it is important for parents to intervene and take action as soon as possible, although he admits that his son successfully hid his problems from his parents prior to his suicide.
“Parents are often the last to realize; kids can cover things up so beautifully when they want to,” he said. “Just be vigilant, be close and let your child feel free to open up.”
Sometimes a tragic outcome can be averted, as in the case of Robin’s son.
“My life was just really rough, and I suffered the effects of a nasty divorce and custody fight,” he said. “I just wanted someone to tell me it would be OK, and the pain of what I experienced was just too much for me.
“When I tried to kill myself, the few seconds that I lost consciousness were such a relief. After not dying, I now am in the process of rebuilding my life with therapy, medication and support.”
Several decades ago, Jews who committed suicide were considered to have violated Jewish law and were buried in a separate part of the cemetery and denied certain mourning rites. Today, this is no longer the case; it is widely recognized that those who take their own lives are driven by some kind of mental incapacity, whether permanent or temporary.
“We as a society have learned so much about mental illness,” said Josh Tobias of Ira Kaufman Chapel, who said the funeral and burial procedures are no different for a person who has killed himself. “It’s [mental illness] out of their control, so how can we treat them any differently?”
Otto Dube of Hebrew Memorial Chapel said that Jewish traditions surrounding death are very respectful to the living and the deceased.
“As people, we have no right to judge,” he said. “Why cause a family more pain [by treating them differently]?”
For the family and friends left behind, suicide can have devastating and long-lasting effects.
“Suicide is like a nuclear bomb,” said Gail Beale, who just observed her son’s fourth yahrtzeit. “It hits right into the heart of the family. It lasts for generations.”
Lezell said she was unable to keep any food down for six months after her daughter’s suicide.
“It ripped a part of me,” she said. “I can barely smile now.”
Lezell, now living in Florida, has made it her mission to legally ban the kind of online information her daughter used to end her life. She has written many letters to her legislators and initiated a petition on Change.org., an advocacy website.
“This is not just a matter of freedom of speech,” said Lezell, who said suicide-related instructions and products have been banned in Australia. “This is assisted suicide using a credit card.”
Kamen said therapy for survivors is critical.
Gail Beale found comfort attending support groups offered by Common Ground of Michigan, an organization that helps families and individuals dealing with suicide and other crises.
The anniversary of a suicide can also be a painful time. A phone call, note, email or other act of kindness can mean a lot to someone who has lost a loved one.
Sylvia G. (not her real name) followed a suggestion she received after her young adult son took his life: She wrote a letter to her son and then crafted a response letter back.
“It was a really helpful exercise,” she said. “In the letter I wrote to him, I was able to express the regrets for all the things I had done or not done. In the letter back to me, I was able to clearly hear his voice telling me he loved me and thought I had done a good job. I felt like he heard and understood my fears and worries.”
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer
Where To Find Help
24-hour crisis and resource hotline: 1-800-231-1127
Easter Seals Michigan
2399 E. Walton Blvd., Auburn Hills
(248) 475-6400 or (800)-75-SEALS (757-3257)
Jewish Family Service
6555 W. Maple Road
(248) 592-2300; www.jfsdetroit.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(programs for individuals, families coping with mental illness)
15999 W. 12 Mile Road, Southfield
Survivors of Suicide
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) – Laura Edwards