NAMING THE BEAST: MENTAL ILLNESS by Rabbi Ilyse S. Kramer
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 hearts of those affected. It’s mental illness. It’s depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter with which type of mental illness one lives. What matters, is that it can steal so many years away from people who are otherwise wildly pulsating human beings. For those of us in the midst of such a roller coaster life or 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 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 in death that our loved ones feel at peace. We bury our dear friends and we cry and we mourn as their tortuous battle comes to an end. We hope to God that there is mercy and compassion to be found as they finally lie still.
At this particular young man’s funeral, we got a chance to see what kind of ‘soul’ he was by those who attended and even by those who could not attend but sent messages of 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 Lubavitzer to Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionists. We were all drawn to his new resting place.
Peter had been a student of mine at the Wesleyan University. 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 journeys. 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 and prayer.
At Peter’s funeral, I chose to close my remarks 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 that moment, it felt as if the world understood our rage.
By the completion of the burial service, the trees swayed and danced in the wind and a soft shower of rain like tears, descended upon us. And we hugged and cried and laughed as one does at funerals, connecting with all those present in that moment.
Mental illness tears apart the fabric of life and drills down to the marrow of our bones. It is an insidious disease and it continues to take too many people way too early. And while it becomes their life’s battle, it is never who they truly are.