Naming the Beast: Mental Illness

July 18, 2013
BY Rabbi Ilyse S. Kramer

This was my third funeral of a similar kind. The death of yet another young adult, Peter (Avniel) who did not simply “die,” but was pursued mercilessly by a ravaging disease that often goes unnamed at funerals and rips the heart and guts out of all who know it by name: mental illness.

Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, it doesn’t matter from with which type of mental illness someone suffers, what matters is that it steals so many years away from people who are otherwise wildly creative human beings. In many cases, the more intelligent and talented you are, the worse the disease manifests.

It tears families apart. It tests all relationships. It pursues with a vengeance. When it’s bad, it’s really bad.

Yes, there are medications. There are plenty of doctors and a variety of therapies and therapists. But in some cases, there is not a “cure,” no happy ending. Death is the only relief. And despite the pain we feel at these people’s funerals, we also know that it is only now that they are actually at peace. How tragic.

In the Jewish tradition, we bury the deceased by completely filling the grave, and we wish the soul well in its next journey through our prayers.

Some say, “Dead is dead.” For me, there is something deeply touching and profound about this final ritual act, an act of loving kindness for which the deceased cannot repay you.

At Peter’s — he was 38 — you could see the person he was through the people he touched. At the ceremony were his family and an eclectic groups of friends —  Jews, Christians, atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, rabbis of all denominations.

Peter was a student of mine at Wesleyan University. He was a true mystic. He brought so many diverse people together in his short life through honest talk, joyful dancing, prayer and niggunim (wordless melodies). His musical touch reached over the seas to Israel, as many realized only after his death, he was 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.”

At the funeral, I shared many memories, but I closed my remarks by naming the beast called mental illness. And the simple calling out of its name early on in the service opened us all up to a more honest reality than would have been possible. We rel-eased a collective cry to the heavens. For a moment, it felt as if the world itself, shuttered from our pain and ang-uish, 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 mist, like tears from heaven descended upon us.

Mental illness tears apart the fabric of life; it drills down to the marrow of our bones. It becomes the battle of their life, but it is never who they truly are in life.

This is a tribute to all who suffer from the ravages of mental illness.

Rabbi Ilyse S. Kramer is a local educator, a scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies and a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. Her views do not represent the opinions of the board or its members.

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