In suicides shadow, God, grief and guilt come to light

El Sobrante swelters. Absolutely humid, brisket-braising heat. I wipe my face again and again to read the grave marker, but the sweat keeps clouding my vision, fogging my glasses.

My aunt killed herself in Berkeley the year before I was born. She left behind two boys ages 10 and 11 with an alcoholic father. She also left behind a void in my family that never closed, and was never given an explanation. No solace or peace for anyone. To this day, it makes my dad into a mute if the subject comes up. I ask him a question about it and he pauses, trying to overcome the years he has spent repressing the details.

In the eight years I’ve lived in the Bay Area, my parents have only visited her grave once. The trauma is still just too real for them. They have devoted careful effort to keeping the terror away from their otherwise successful, healthy lives. When we did visit we were there for less than 15 minutes before my dad started acting like we were all being exposed to radiation and rushed us to the car.

I’m in El Sobrante, looking at her grave and the heat is making me crazy. I’m thinking about this dark-haired aunt I never knew, a Berkeley radical and schoolteacher. My closest link to her was through her book collection, which my brother and I inherited. An excellent collection of Greek tragedies.

The dry hillsides around the cemetery remind me of the Exodus hikes that my temple would have around Passover when I was little. It was always ridiculously hot, and we would stumble through a park in the Malibu hills, re-enacting the condensed wanderings of our people. Our rabbi would always go off and talk to God whenever we Hebrews were in trouble, and he would come back with jugs of water and the like. It always ended under some trees with apples and honey.

This was God to me, a game on a hot Sunday afternoon. But in my family, God was as absent as my aunt.

I’m not crazy about Jewish religious traditions. Yes, I went to Yom Kippur services this year, but only after being a pain in the ass about it to my wife, who wanted to check it out.

My emotions around devout Judaism can run toward hostility, even. And it’s not just me; my 93-year-old atheist grandfather says some nasty things about faith in a higher power. My parents are more polite.

But as I stand burning up in El Sobrante, I think about what makes God tick. It’s about observance, awareness.

My secular family could have really benefited from Jewish traditions around death. Jews don’t hide from it; they keep it present and they keep it public. You pray, you talk about your loss with yourself, with your community and with God. You have a yahrzeit and say the Kaddish to keep your loved one present.

My grandparents couldn’t even talk to each other about my aunt’s suicide without starting to blame each other for it. As a child I never understood these arguments but I grasped their tone in my gut, acid and raw, unending.

Am I saying that I wish God had been present in the life of my family? I don’t know. It’s too hot to know how I really feel. I do know that I wish my aunt had been present in my life. We probably could have had a great talk about the existence of God over an ice-cold glass of lemonade. That would have been nice.

Jay Schwartz can be reached at jay@jweekly.com.