Back in July, RivkA of Coffee and Chemo had one of the most insightful posts I’ve ever read. She said she used to think that there were people with complicated, difficult lives, and people with easy, smooth-going lives. Nowadays, she still believes that there are two types of people, but the two types are “1. People whose lives are complex and 2. People who you do not know so well.”
I’ve thought about this ever since I read it, and have been thinking about this lately in particular as I’ve learned that a student in the school in which Ilana-Davita teaches committed suicide—the second student to do so in six months. In addition, the sister of a friend of mine died last week—by all appearances a suicide.
These incidents have a much different effect on the living than surviving someone who has died of illness or sudden accident. Death always seems to make us take stock of our lives, but suicide seems to create doubt in our minds, to bring guilt to the surface, to make us ask why someone would choose death over life. We feel betrayed, rejected, abandoned when someone leaves us on purpose. We blame ourselves for not knowing how the person felt, and try to imagine what we might have done to contribute to the person’s misery and unhappiness, or what we should have done to alleviate his suffering.
And yet. While a rabbi in my neighborhood commented on Shabbat that the woman’s death last week was a wake-up call to all of us, I learned at the shiva that there was no sign of discontent in her life, that she was in good health, she had a good job, a beautiful loving immediate and extended family, and that she was the sort of person who, when things got beyond her ability to deal with them, would ask for help from others. Whether she had an unknown source of unhappiness, or whether there is some other explanation, the family may never know.
But this brings me back to RivkA’s point. We may believe we know the people closest to us, but sometimes we just don’t. I don’t share every single thought or worry that I have with others, no matter how close they are to me. And I know there’s plenty that goes on in the minds of my husband and children that I know nothing about.
For someone to be driven to the point where she believes she cannot ask for help, or accept help, and would rather devastate those closest to her than deal with her problems is a very serious point indeed. We don’t like being unable to understand things, which makes it all the harder to understand how someone could make a decision like that. What balance of worry, coping skills, and mental stability (or instability) came together in this person to result in something so final and, seemingly, unnecessary? We see people deal with life-threatening illness, grief, poverty, abuse, and personal disaster every day—why did this person think he couldn’t cope?
I sometimes use literature to help me work through my thoughts. I love the play Romeo and Juliet, and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to teach it once to a class of bright 10th graders. It’s one of the few works in the curriculum that I think speaks to kids in their early teens. But as we know, it involves lots of death, and a double suicide at the end. I was not insensitive to this when teaching my students, and the day they walked in after having finished the play, I took a few minutes to discuss with them the ending. How did it come about? What role did the adults play? How much of the play’s action was dictated by the youth and impulsiveness of the characters? What were their alternatives? What would have happened to them in the long run if they had not married one another secretly? I finished by making the point—based on my own experience, that of my family and friends, and that of others I have known—that the human spirit can absorb an enormous amount of insult, abuse, disappointment, and heartache, and still recover. Just because Romeo and Juliet couldn’t see beyond their immediate circumstances does not mean that they would not have had a full life, filled with joy, contentment, and productivity ahead of them. When a door closes in one place, a door often opens somewhere else; it’s merely a question of finding it.
May the aggrieved be comforted, and may we all live in the knowledge that while we cannot always see the future, it is there waiting for us.