by Annette Hinkle
With tales of bullying and the tragic consequences that can come as a result on the rise in the news, including in East Hampton where 16-year-old David Barros took his life just weeks ago, attention been turned to the circumstances that can lead people to do the unthinkable and the steps that might prevent it from happening again.
It’s a goal that’s not lost on sociologist William Feigelman and his wife Beverly, a social worker. In July 2002, the Feigelman’s son, Jesse, took his own life at the age of 31.
“He was my best friend,” said William. “We went to Knicks games together, he was a filmmaker and we went to movies and talked literature.”
“He was my alter ego,” added William.
But Jesse was also part of a staggering statistic.
“There are 38,000 suicides yearly in the United States,” said William. It’s the twelfth leading cause of death for all age groups – second for the college aged.”
And according to a National Institute of Health publication, “Suicide in the United States: Statistics and Prevention,” in 2007 it was the third leading cause of death for ages 24 and under.
But often hidden in the shadow of suicide are the survivors. Parents, siblings and significant others who may find themselves alone in their grief as people they know avoid them, offer sentiments that are less than supportive or ignore the death altogether.
“They’re not supposed to talk about it, not emote, not express the feelings and thoughts they have,” said William. “This is the territory of suicide bereavement — the elephant in living room.
But it’s not just friends and acquaintances who may lack sensitivity to the suicide bereaved — often it’s healthcare professionals who have cared for the deceased or their family.
Last Thursday, the Feigelmans, part-time Springs residents, offered a presentation on suicide bereavement to medical personnel at Southampton Hospital. Their focus was an extensive study the couple conducted beginning in 2006 using data from 462 parents who lost a child to suicide. They note though survivors in their survey expected doctors to show solace and support, many reported therapists and physicians avoided them, did not talk about the suicide, or mention their loved one at all.
“Concern about litigation is one reason,” said Beverly. “If a doctor says ‘I’m sorry,’ they’re worried people will say, ‘What didn’t you do in treating my child as the physician caring for the person?’”
Another reason for avoidance among practitioners, noted Beverly, is personal discomfort with the subject or fear that talking about suicide, especially to those with a high level of anxiety or depression, will heighten the risks by planting the idea in their head.
None of these fears, however, was born out by the Feigelmans’ research. Which is why the Feigelmans are on a mission to convince medical schools and continuing healthcare education programs to train doctors about the importance of reaching out to the newly bereaved and offer appropriate referrals.
“These are populations to be concerned about in your practice,” said Beverly. “Suicide is a loss for the physician as well and needs to be validated.”
For William, of major concern on the East End is the lack of support for the suicide bereaved. Which is why he and Beverly are eager to assist in the creation of a group east of the canal.
“It’s a neglected population,” he noted. “The closest support group for suicide bereavement is in Patchogue – 45 miles away. We would be glad to work with anybody – a social worker and other survivors to create a support group … contact us,” said William.
“Our research has demonstrated it’s necessary,” he added. “I hope you can share this idea with friends and get cracking on that.”
The Feigelmans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. They have written a book on the subject of suicide bereavement, “Devastating Losses,” and are the subject of “After,” a 2011 film by Joel Cohan that documents their lives nine years after Jesse’s suicide. The 22 minute documentary will be screened in Sag Harbor on December 1 as part of the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival at Bay Street Theatre.