International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is meant to be a healing experience for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Yet due to the event being held on Saturday, Nov. 19, those who observe Shabbat will be unable to participate.
As a result, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), which organizes the event each year, will also be holding a virtual gathering on Sunday, Nov. 20, to better accommodate the needs of the Jewish community.
Survivor Day has annually been held the Saturday before Thanksgiving; it was created in 1999 when it was signed into law by Congress. Hundreds of events in honor of survivors and suicide victims are held throughout the world by various mental-health and suicide-awareness organizations.
“ISOSL Day: Through a Jewish Lens,” the Jewish-focused version of the event, is being held virtually from noon to 2 p.m. so that those across the country who want to attend can do so. Participants will be able to discuss their experiences with losing a loved one and to grieve together with others, as well as view an AFSP-produced documentary about loss.
Organizers says the goal of the event is to honor the memory of those lost and to bring survivors closer together as a means of support, whether their loss has occurred recently or long ago.
“Suicide touches one in five American families,” said Sandra Goldmeer, who serves as area director of the capital region New York chapter of the AFSP. “By connecting and coming together, we will keep going in the fight to stop [it].”
She will serve as the facilitator for the online event, leading the conversation and ensuring that it goes smoothly.
“Together, we send the message that you are never alone, that healing is possible, and when we connect, we create hope. Together we keep going,” she said.
‘reference the way that jews often mourn’
While not a survivor of suicide loss herself, Goldmeer has been working at AFSP for the past three years and in the Jewish community for more than 25 years. Last year, she realized that many Jewish people could not attend the more general Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event due to the day it takes place.
“I think the pandemic actually helped with this endeavor,” she pointed out. “Because most of our events prior to this, we’ve all done live. And so this gave us an opportunity to connect with survivors across the country.”
Though changes in suicide statistics due to the COVID-19 pandemic are not yet clear, it has had a profound effect on mental health all over the world. Goldmeer said that now more than ever, it is important to come together and support fellow community members, especially ones who have experienced such profound loss.
“Culturally, we don’t always talk about [suicide],” she noted. “Many of us in the Jewish community have grown up believing that people who die by suicide are not able to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, which is not necessarily the case anymore. And now we know more about why people die by suicide. This particular event allows us to reference the way that Jews often mourn those who die.”
ISOSL Day: Through a Jewish Lens is not simply a rescheduling of Saturday’s more secular event. It will incorporate elements of Jewish teachings and philosophy, including looking at loss through the week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, which happens to be about the death of the Jewish matriarch.
“It’s a bit of an opportunity to discuss how we honor the way people live after they’ve left us,” said Goldmeer. “We make points of contact throughout the event that are Jewish in nature and will feel comfortable to those of the Jewish faith.”
‘A safe place to explore their feelings’
For those in the Baltimore area who are seeking an outlet for this kind of grief, Jewish Community Services offers a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Facilitated by grief clinician Donna Kane, the group meets on the second Thursday of each month, and allows attendees to connect with others and to seek guidance and support from Kane. JCS also offers many other mental-health services, and their health educators are certified instructors in the QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) model of suicide prevention.
“With stigmatized loses being harder to acknowledge, silence in the community surrounding the issue of suicide has often left those grieving feeling isolated, alone and at risk for further mental-health challenges and complicated grief,” said Claire Fultz, JCS’s director of mental health.
“People in the group have met in person, participated in memorials for a group member’s loved one and have come from places as far away as British Columbia and California,” said Kane. “Grieving loss by suicide is painful and difficult. This group has offered many a safe place to explore their feelings and receive support.”