Through a strange association, this week I remembered the following incident.
One evening, many years ago, I got into a huge fight with my son. He was playing some sort of PlayStation game on the family room TV and the sound was blasting. I was trying to get his attention – to discuss something with him – but he was focused on the game and was ignoring me. So, in total exasperation and with a pounding headache, I hit the TV “power off” button.
What came next is still a total blur. Apparently by shutting off the TV, I caused the entire game and all of its stored data to go “poof”! It just vanished and nothing was left of his “many hours of hard work.” As a result, my son – and even my husband – started yelling at me. Aghast, furious, and trying to remain composed, I grabbed my purse from the kitchen and stormed out of the house.
I never tried to run away from home as a child, but certainly wanted to as a parent that night. I was angry that my husband sided with my son; appalled that my son would be so obnoxious over a stupid game; and decided that I was done with it all. I “ran away” by hanging out at Starbucks for a while, going to see a movie, and camping out for the long haul at my office (I owned my own business at the time). I knew I didn’t want to go home, but wasn’t sure if I was ready to skip town, go into hiding, and change my identity. For that night, I was “lost” and didn’t want to be “found.”
* * *
A high school friend took his own life this past week. He was fifty-one years old.
Family, friends, and acquaintances are left with many questions, but no answers. They ask why. They wonder if they could have or should have done something. They are upset that they weren’t turned to for help. They can’t fathom how this could happen to someone who was nice, funny, giving, and seemingly on top of the world. They can’t reconcile the notion that someone they thought they knew — a son, brother, nephew, husband, father, or friend — would “leave” this way.
Depression cannot be rationalized. It is a serious illness. Someone who has never experienced it cannot fully understand. We must not judge. The fact that a chemical change in the brain can radically distort one’s perception of self, life, etc. does not begin to describe the “black hole” that sufferers believe they cannot escape. My friend wrestled and battled with a horribly dark force, but “lost.”
In ancient Judaism, it was believed that people who committed suicide did so because evil spirits overcame them. As a result, they were not to be buried near the “righteous” for fear of some type of “contamination.” So, their graves were located in a separate section of the cemetery; usually at the far edge or on the other side of a fence. And, the traditional mourning process was either abandoned or modified.
As Jewish law evolved, however, it was decided that, “…an adult who takes his life willfully, and [if] he was under duress like King Saul, we do not withhold from him any aspect (of burial or mourning).” This was understood to mean that deliberate suicide, performed under duress or as a result of “emotional demons,” would not prevent the person from being buried or mourned in a manner that was appropriate for someone who died as a result of involuntary means.
Both perspectives ultimately focus on the burial and the mourning procedures. That is because the family and community require an approach that tries to bring a form of closure. Even if questions about the death linger, the process of saying goodbye through eulogizing, praying, singing, burying, and mourning is designed to provide some direction or motion forward and help the survivors begin to heal.
* * *
So, now we mourn. Through a sense of mutual loss, old high school relationships have been found again. We are at an age where the passing of one of our own is shockingly painful. We’ve lost others, but somehow this one is different. He was someone special; he was someone we wanted to be with and be like; he was a really good one. We cry for him as much as we cry for ourselves.
May God comfort and sustain all of Alan Kirschenbaum’s family and friends during this difficult time. May Alan’s memory be for a blessing. May God give us the strength to find the help we each may need to go from “lost” to “found.”
 Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 345:3. [The Shulchan Arukh (literally:“Set Table”), by Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) is considered the most authoritative compilation of Jewish law since the Talmud.]