Grappling with teen suicide: Religious leaders offer solace after three die on Palo Alto tracks

On Aug. 31, a community still reeling from the apparent suicides of three teenagers filled all 320 seats and spilled into the aisles of the Cubberley Community Center theatre in Palo Alto.

In the last four months, two girls and a boy killed themselves near the same spot on the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto, by walking in front of an oncoming train. A fourth teen attempted suicide on the tracks, but was intercepted at the last minute.

Community members’ reasons for coming together were varied: Some sought comfort, while others expressed concern. Many were worried, but all were eager to hear the six-member panel of leaders from Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Christian Science traditions draw upon their faith teachings and practices as a means of support for teenagers.  

“We should not beat ourselves up so much about a particular community and culture creating youth suicide,” said Congregation Beth Am Rabbi Janet Marder,  a member of the panel, expressing disbelief in the theory that pressure to succeed in a notoriously high-achieving area like Silicon Valley possibly drove the teens to end their lives.

“It happens in all kinds of communities and environments. I don’t think there is anything particularly pernicious in Palo Alto,” she said. 

Organized by the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County, the town forum, titled “Supporting Our Teens: A Multifaith Community Response,” was moderated by Palo Alto Mayor Peter Drekmeier. The two-hour program began with brief opening remarks from each of the panelists, followed by questions from the audience.

“Don’t break our hearts” is scrawled in chalk near the spot where three teens committed suicide. photo/joyce goldschmid

Though he wasn’t scheduled to speak, Michael Kang of Los Altos talked about his nephew, Jean-Paul Blanchard, with whom he shared a close relationship. Last May, the Gunn High School junior stepped in front of a Caltrain at East Meadow Drive in Palo Alto and died.  

Kang described Blanchard as an outgoing teen who loved kids and animals, earned decent grades, played on the tennis team and had a girlfriend.

“I don’t know how we could have recognized anything,” Kang told the more than 300 adults and handful of teens in the audience. “I’m sorry if that leaves you puzzled.”  

According to police, the latest victim was a 13-year-old girl who was killed by a Caltrain four days before she was to start as a freshman at Gunn High School on Aug. 25.

The girl, Catrina Holmes, reportedly left behind a suicide note before she walked into the path of an oncoming train near Meadow Drive at 10:45 p.m. Aug. 21.

A month after Blanchard’s death, Gunn senior Sonya Raymakers also killed herself by standing in front of a train the week before she was supposed to graduate.

Around the same time, another student from Gunn attempted to kill himself, but was stopped by his mother and a passing motorist who noticed a commotion on the tracks and called 911. The student was taken to a local hospital.

“In Judaism, the idea is that everybody who takes their own life is considered to be in need of mental help,” Rabbi Ari Cartun of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto said in a phone interview. “They’re not necessarily culpable for what they did.”

Raymakers was Jewish, according to Cartun, who read the Mourner’s Kaddish and co-officiated her funeral service with the Rev. Amy Zucker Morgenstern of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

In the days following Raymakers’ death in June, “we opened up our congregation to her family and tried to be available to them,” Cartun said.  

“As difficult as suicide is to deal with, we approach it as a mental health case,” he added. “We reach out to the family as people who need help.”

Prior to the suicides, Rabbi David Booth would address teen suicide at his Palo Alto synagogue, Congregation Kol Emeth, in the context of ethics, along with issues such as morality and body image. 

But the topic has since shifted to the forefront of many congregants’ minds, particularly following Raymakers’ suicide. 

Hazel Anker

“I’m finding someone dying so tragically affects everyone differently,” Booth said in an interview. “The Gunn students and other high school kids are dealing with their own feelings of sadness and fears of ‘will this continue?’ Parents experience anxiety because they love their children.”

While a person’s initial reaction to suicide may be to place blame or seek out quick-fix solutions to prevent future deaths, Booth suggested listening and allowing others to express their grief as ways of coping. 

“There’s a concept in Judaism in terms of God’s presence with us in suffering,” he said. “When I sit and listen to what people are saying, the idea is that the quality of hope is restored by my presence, not by the words that I say.”

Before students filed out of school for the summer, Booth spoke with several youth group participants about Jewish law and suicide. He explained that God determines ultimate matters of life and death, and therefore, it is forbidden for Jews to end their own lives.

Rabbis, he said, try to create clear rules concerning suicide, but also try to create a sense of compassion for the victim’s kin. According to Jewish law, it’s forbidden for a suicide to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But “after the fact, it’s not a time to have a hard and fast rule,” Booth said. “We must allow a community to be compassionate and offer their presence for that family.”

In a way, that was the idea behind the Aug. 31 forum. Participants not only wanted advice on how to use religion as a vehicle for talking to their teens about suicide, but also as a way to broach the subject with others. 

Drekmeier peppered the panel with questions, including one asking how the community can minimize the impact of suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens.

According to a 2008 report released by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center in Newton, Mass., studies that compare the rate of suicide attempts among LGBT youth with those among heterosexual youth show significantly higher rates for LGBT youth, often more than four times as high.

“If you’re speaking to a parent who is disappointed in how a child has turned out, refocus them,” Marder advised. “Ask, ‘You want your child to be alive, right?’

“The most important thing is to keep children alive, no matter how they are. We want them alive.”

Rabbi Janet Marder

In an effort to promote conversation among parents and teens, Marder suggested employing one of Judaism’s oldest religious symbols: the kitchen table.

“We are a home-based people,” Marder said as laughter filled the theater. “Everyone has a powerful opportunity to impart religious ideas in the simple atmosphere of sitting around the table.”

She also encouraged parents to invite their teenagers’ friends over to the house. “It’s often much easier for teenagers to talk to someone else’s parents,” Marder said, “and [for you] to become an older adult friend to their friends.”

Hazel Anker planned to bring the information she learned that night back to her adult b’nai mitzvah class at Congregation Beth Am.

“I’m empowered to make a difference, and be more mindful and sensitive to the problem we’re experiencing,” said the Palo Alto resident, whose son is a senior at Gunn. “We have to give our kids more credit and listen to what they have to say.”

After the forum, people gathered outside on the theater steps to talk in small groups with additional representatives from religious, community and high school groups.

A handful of teens from Palo Alto High School’s Youth Community Service club stood among the adults, holding posters covered with photos of smiling participants at various club activities.

Clad in tie-dye T-shirts and shorts, the club’s three co-presidents did their best to mingle with adults. But it was clear the teens were missing their target audience: high school students.

“Kids don’t like to be singled out,” said 15-year-old Hannah Mernyk, explaining why she thought more teens didn’t attend the forum. “Troubled kids often feel alone, but being part of a club can definitely help. You get community service hours, bond with others and feel a part of something.”

Cover photo by joyce goldschmid

Amanda Pazornik