Bang!, was the sound I heard in the middle of my sleep. I jumped up, but my husband Matt wasn’t there. I bolted out of bed and ran down the stairs, tears streaming down my face, praying, “Please God, don’t let this be what I think it is.”
I ran into our home office, where Matt might have been working. No Matt. I noticed the door to our garage was unlocked. I ran into the garage, crying, shaking, and there, I saw my husband of 15 years lying on the ground in a pool of blood surrounding his head. He had finally done what he talked about over the years.
Matt suffered from a mental illness (Bipolar II, unofficially diagnosed). He never acknowledged this and refused to seek treatment. He was extremely bright and throughout much of his 41 years was able to compensate. But mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Even smart people, even Jewish people, can be in its grip.
It was now almost five in the morning on Oct. 31, 2011, just a few minutes after the fatal gunshot. People gradually streamed into my house. I was in a state of shock. Our rabbi, Seth Gordon (formerly of Bethpage, L.I.), appeared at 5:30 a.m. I have few recollections of that morning, but one is the rabbi’s wife folding mounds of laundry strewn over our couch.
I remember repeatedly asking, “What do I tell my kids?” ages 9 and 7. Just then, my 7-year-old came down the stairs, bleary-eyed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, wondering why were all these people here. That was my cue to awaken his brother and tell them that their father was dead.
There was the police interview, funeral, shiva, many meals. It’s all a blur, with the exception of the vivid image of my 9-year-old donning his father’s tallit and tefilin every morning during shiva.
“How are you doing?” people ask. “How are the kids doing?” I never know how to answer. It has taken a community to help us in our process of healing, recovery and growth. But recovering is exactly what we’re doing. I write this as Matt’s one-year yahrtzeit approaches. I’m vacationing at a lake with my boys and Sheila, my “eight-week friend.”
I met Sheila at Annie’s Hope, a family bereavement center in St. Louis.
After Matt’s suicide, my boys and I attended an eight-week bereavement group. The boys were in a group with other kids their age; I was in a group with others who lost someone to suicide. Sheila and I bonded immediately. She refers to me as her “suicide sister.” I marvel at our friendship, two women — one Jewish and one Christian — who seemingly would have nothing else in common, have so much in common. Our discussion today at the lake centers on why I had to bring my own meat and what exactly does “kosher” mean. Thanks to my Ramaz education, I could explain this to her.
Between my shul, my children’s day school, and my professional community, I have never felt alone in this nightmare. I grew up in Queens and moved to St. Louis 18 years ago. My family still resides in New York. People have asked me, “Are you moving back?” The thought never crossed my mind. My community, my support network, is here in St. Louis. Meals came to my house for months. Nine months later, I still have meals in my freezer. People volunteered to babysit, take my kids for play dates and run errands. The emotional support offered to me was beyond what I expected. I am a psychologist and therefore many of my friends are psychologists and psychiatrists. I joke that I have “friends with benefits.” Rabbi Gordon was yet another source of tremendous emotional support and comfort.
But there are bad days, full of sadness, grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, and anger. There are the intense emotions of missing Matt. There are times when I can have empathy and compassion for him that he was so miserable, that suicide was the only option he felt he had. There are times when I am enraged at him and times when I have immense anxiety about being a single mother.
Therapy has been crucial in our recovery. Three times a week, I drive to opposite ends of town, so that the boys and I each have a chance to talk to a professional about the normal emotions we experience. People ask, “How much longer are the boys going to be in therapy?” My reply: “Forever.”
As the holidays and Matt’s yahrtzeit approach, I ponder our healing and recovery. My boys are fast asleep from a day of swimming and boating with Sheila’s son. My family and friends tell me that they are amazed by how well we’re doing. Are there bad days? Absolutely. But they’re interspersed with good ones and ever-emerging feelings of hope.
Anat Reschke is a psychologist in private practice in St. Louis.