After I took my annual blood test, I drove to my office, turned on my laptop and checked my email. Since I had signed up for the email list from my local Jewish funeral home, I often received a list of daily funerals. I rarely paid it much attention, until Friday, the last day of September. I was deleting my emails until I took a double take as I read the first name on the funeral home’s list.
It was my primary care doctor, whom I had seen a few months earlier and during the last two weeks, called twice to get my medication renewed. I couldn’t understand why he’d not renewed my medications.
My doctor had died the day before Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year. Like me, my doctor was Jewish but he was four years younger than me, in seemingly good health, with a busy practice. I wondered how he had died and assumed that a middle-aged man, slightly overweight, must have died from a heart attack. I called my friend who had recommended this doctor seven years ago. He told me that my doctor hung himself at home, right before the New Year.
It was then that I realized I really knew nothing.
I watched my doctor’s funeral on Zoom. He was born on Memorial Day in 1961, a brother to three siblings. He had graduated the University of Michigan in three years and went to Wayne State (same college I attended) Med School. He was mentioned by the rabbi as someone everyone liked, the “kindest person,” and the best friend of his wife, also a doctor, of 40 years. They had the same engraving on their wedding rings, “always and forever.” He was a devoted caring doctor, had hundreds of loyal patients for decades. He was also the “best friend of his oldest son, Bryan” and was loved deeply by his two daughters. His wife and son and brother-in-law were all doctors. He had a life that everyone could envy and he seemed “happy.”
After the rabbi, his wife spoke words on a page, very quietly, her hands held by her son and oldest daughter. She spoke about how wonderful he was as a husband, father, and grandfather of two young children, 1 and 3. There were hardly any clues to his mental health until the end of the ten minutes when she said that she hoped that his “demons” were now gone.
My dad’s youngest sister committed suicide 45 years ago. My dad lost a great friend 20 years ago and our good friend’s sister took her own life on the last day of the year nearly 3 years ago.
Do we really understand what drives people to eliminate themselves from their lives and devastate their families? My wife texted me after the funeral, “Mental illness is an illness. People blame those who can’t help themselves. Obviously, he didn’t get the needed help or it just didn’t work… His demons got to him. You can’t save someone from themself.”
In some ways, it felt as if I were watching my own funeral. But after it, I vowed to be resolute. Even when I fall into despair, I know what suicide does to the survivors. So I make my vow, no matter my demons, to always choose life over death.