When I asked my son Noah if he’d make his Aunt Sheri’s macaroons for our Passover Seder, he paused just a beat before saying yes. This was a week before Passover and three weeks after he’d come home from college on medical leave, suffering from major depression and anxiety. The “yes” was more than my husband and I had been able to get out of Noah when we implored him to see a psychiatrist.
Our family never had that Seder. Noah took his life on March 19, 2013. Instead of 10 people around a celebratory table, we had 100 people jammed into the living room for a shiva minyan. Instead of the usual Four Questions, we had new ones that could never be answered: Why did a plague of darkness descend on our son? Why didn’t the angel of death pass over our house? What do we tell the child who is too ashamed to speak his pain? Will this once-precious holiday always be tainted for our family? And the question that would torment me far past the holiday: What if … ?
That first Passover, with a last-minute invitation to a friend’s Seder, the salt water and bread of affliction were all that made sense. My husband, Bryan, and I went to synagogue during Passover week, arriving late to say Kaddish and stumbling out before anyone could approach us. I’d never paid much attention to Yizkor memorial services, but now I sensed the collective grief in the room and seized on the lines from the siddur: “Give me the gift of remembering . . . Shelter me with the gift of tears . . . May I always believe in the beauty of life, the power of goodness, the right to joy.” Beauty and joy, even remembering, felt impossibly remote when all I could see was the shell that Noah had become in his last months, drained of wit and warmth, and all I could hear was the wail of my older son when they opened the casket.
Pesadich dinners appeared on our doorstep, along with the rabbi, cantor, and friends from my Jewish meditation group. They tried to lead me through a calming exercise but I was too agitated to take a deep breath, much less sit with eyes closed. I thought I’d never recover the sense of gratitude I’d been cultivating in several years of meditation and Shabbat observance. How could I be grateful for anything when my beautiful boy lay in a box in the ground in a cemetery that was, as he would have said, full of old people?
His cool college self wouldn’t have admitted it, but Noah always had a soft spot for his Jewish roots. He grew up reveling in big Hanukkah parties and Seders filled with cousins at his grandparents’ house, where he got a silver dollar for the Afikoman whether he found it or not. As a teenager, he joined in the bravado over who could eat the most horseradish and pinched his cousins’ cheeks as he exclaimed over them in a fake Yiddish accent. As an exchange student, he made his dad’s famous latkes for his French host family outside on the cold deck of their houseboat so as to spare the rooms below from the clinging smell. At the three Shabbat dinners Bryan and I had with Noah before he died, there was a glimmer of feeling on his face during the blessings that we hadn’t seen in months. Was he already missing the life he would leave?
Holidays loomed large in the wake of his suicide, reminding us of time passing without Noah in it and of how far we felt from celebration. By the second Passover, I could briefly ponder the personal relevance of the Israelites’ journey, as suggested in our Haggadah insert: What is your own mitzrayim (Egypt or narrow place of oppression)? What would you take with you in crossing to freedom and what would you leave behind? How long did my child suffer in the mitzrayim of his mind? Surely those who kill themselves have arrived at the narrowest of places with no vision of the opposite shore, no option other than to end the pain. When they do so, they pass the pain on to everyone who loved them and plunge survivors into a morass of shock and shame, self-doubt and self-blame. I couldn’t yet imagine any liberation from this tragedy. When would I be able to leave behind my guilt for failing to save Noah? How could I carry with me the image of him strong, healthy, and full of life?
Dayenu—“it would have been enough.” A year later, my meditation group was focusing on this word from the popular Passover song, and I froze. I couldn’t say Dayenu for the time we had Noah in our lives because 21 years are not nearly long enough for your child to live. I struggled to affirm what might have been: Had you come home from college and taken a long break to rest and heal, Dayenu. Had you drifted for a time and kept us at a distance, Dayenu. Had you tackled your demons and lived an ordinary life, Dayenu. Before sinking into the pit with this litany, I tried another tack: Had we had the loving support of family but not that of friends, Dayenu. Had we had the caring support of community but not the help of support groups, Dayenu. Had we had the healing of music, nature, and yoga but not the health to restore our lives, Dayenu. This version, I realized, could go on for many verses. I was grateful for everyone and everything that was sustaining my family through grief.
After the third Passover, I was lucky to find Rabbi Jill Zimmerman and Rabbi Cindy Enger’s online “Journey of the Soul,” a seven-week program that reinvigorates the custom of Counting the Omer, the traditional 49-day period of mourning from Passover to Shavuot. Their themes for each week of the spiritual journey from slavery to freedom were highly evocative: Waking Up, Setting Out, Entering the Wilderness, Being in the Unknown, Finding Our Way, Becoming the Vision, and Arriving. I’d spent a lot of time Entering the Wilderness and Being in the Unknown since losing Noah. Having lost my father to suicide 31 years before, some of the terrain was familiar, but the depth of my despair and self-blame were new. I’d gone in and out of Finding Our Way riding the ebb and surge of waves of grief, still far from a transformational Vision or Arriving. What mattered most was being aware of Setting Out in the first place—having decided to fully express my grief with intentional mourning and self-care, while talking and writing openly about suicide and suicide bereavement with friends and on my blog.
At Shavuot, the culmination of the seven weeks, I was called to the Torah as an adult bat mitzvah. I had muscled through two years of preparation for the day, sensing that the process might give me a stake in the future beyond loss. I had begun to find my voice, singing with the davening team on Saturday mornings in my newly minted, still half-baked Hebrew. On the big day, I knew I could focus on who wasn’t at the ceremony to give me their blessing—or I could be heartened by everyone who was there, cheering for me and my family to have something to celebrate. Standing with 14 other adult b’nai mitzvah in front of the bimah, each of us holding a Torah, felt like a momentous step toward Arrival.
It’s taken a while to let the sweetness of memory meld with the bitterness of loss in the charoset-horseradish Hillel sandwich, to embrace the hope of the boiled egg on the Seder plate. With time, I can reclaim more of the holiday’s gifts. Jewish ritual, song, and spirituality have been a sustaining resource, allowing me to both be with my grief and move through it toward healing. Life will never be the same. But as another Passover approaches, I am profoundly thankful to have reached this season.
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Susan Auerbach is the author of I’ll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother’s Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss, from which parts of this essay are adapted, and maintains the blog Walking the Mourner’s Path After a Child’s Suicide.