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Naming the Beast: Mental Illness

By Rabbi Ilsye S. Kramer

Cyclamen flowers

This was my third funeral of a similar kind. The death of yet another young adult who did not simply die, but was pursued mercilessly by a disease that often goes unnamed at funerals and tears at the heart of those affected. It’s mental illness. It’s depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter with which type of mental illness someone lives with. What matters is that it can steal so many years away from people who are otherwise wildly creative and pulsating human beings. For those of us in the midst of such a roller coaster life as supporters of those affected, mental illness can be heartbreaking. It tears families apart. It tests relationships. It pursues with a vengeance.

Yes, there are medications. Yes, there are plenty of competent doctors. Yes, there are a variety of therapies and therapists. Yes, there is hope. But in the cases I speak about—and we don’t very much like to speak about them, death feels like it is the only relief. Despite the pain we feel when we attend these funerals, we also know that it is only now that our loved ones feel at peace. We bury our dear friends and we cry and we mourn as their tortuous battle has come to an end. We hope to God that there is mercy and compassion to be found as they finally lie still.

In the Jewish tradition, we bury the deceased by completely filling the grave, and wishing the soul well in its next journey with our prayers. For me, there is something deeply touching and profound about this final ritual act, as an act of compassion and of loving-kindness. Despite the harsh sound of rocks and dirt thumping onto the wooden casket (a plain pine box) beginning to fill the grave, the message is clear in that moment: death is final—for this world at least. Next, we turn our attention to the mourners who get the support and strength they need from family, friends, and colleagues; through stories and laughter, prayers and tears.

At this particular young man’s funeral, we got a chance to see what kind of “soul” he was by who attended and even by those who could not attend but sent in messages of their love and affection. There were many present: family and extended family; friends from High School and summer camps; Jews, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, Buddhists and New Age spiritualists; rabbis of all denominations from Carlebach-type and black-hat wearing Lubuvitzer, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist. We were all drawn to his new resting place.

Peter was a student of mine at Wesleyan University where he became a bar mitzvah, and after he graduated, a Hillel-intern on campus. He was a sweet soul of a person with a musical muse. He was an intense spiritual seeker and loved to talk to all people about their life’s journey. Joy radiated from his body; warm, embracing bear-hugs began and ended many a conversation. Most of all, Peter was a true mystic. He brought so many diverse people together in his short life through honest talk, joyful dancing, song, prayer and niggunim (wordless melodies). His musical touch reached over the seas to Israel, as many realized only after his death, as the composer of the tunes they have been singing around their own Shabbat tables for all these years. Even I had to smile when I first “heard” a melody so familiar to me in Jerusalem to be called a “Pete-niggun,” when I was told by Peter with a glint in his eye and a wide smile on his face that the tune “came from Jerusalem.” Indeed, the tune came to him while he lived in Jerusalem; but, in fact, the tunes came thru him, and have since spread around the world and across all denominations.

I chose to close my remarks at his funeral by naming the beast called mental illness. Calling out its name early on in the service opened us all up to a more honest reality than would have been possible had it remained stifled within. Naming the beast released a collective cry out to the heavens—and for a moment, it felt as if the world understood our anger and rage.

By the completion of the burial service the trees swayed and danced in the wind and a soft shower of rain midst, like tears from heaven, descended upon us. And we hugged and cried and laughed—as you do at funerals—connecting with all those present together in that moment, with the soft sounds of Peter’s sweet niggunim resounding around and around.

Mental illness tears apart the fabric of life; it drills down to the marrow of our bones. It is an insidious disease and it continues to take so many people—too many people—way too early in their lives. And while it becomes the battle of their life—it is never who they truly are in life.


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