More than one, less than three

One man's journey through the troubling times following a sibling's suicide.

Roi Ofenbacher (photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
Roi Ofenbacher
(photo credit: MIRI TZACHI)
When Roi Offenbacher was seven, he used to tag along on trips with his father, who worked as a tour guide.
One trip was a two-day hike through the Judean Desert, which culminated in a sunrise climb up Masada and a rendition of the speech given by Elazar Ben Yair, the leader of the Jewish zealots who headed off the Romans for almost three years.
Offenbacher’s father was in charge of explanations, while Roi was in charge of demonstrations: how to float on the water in the aqueduct in Wadi Kelt or how to feed Tristram’s starlings on top of Masada. When he reached bar-mitzva age, his class was scheduled to go on a sunrise school trip to Masada, a place that was like a second home to him. He was excited to show off to his friends where the besieged Jews had kept their food stores and where the bathhouse was located.
The night before the school trip to Masada, the phone rang at home and the young Offenbacher ran to answer it. On the other end of the line, someone said they were calling from Hadassah and could they speak with one of his parents. He’ll never forget the look on his father’s face as he held the phone to his ear.
A few hours later, when his parents got home from the hospital, they told Roi and his nine-year-old brother, Ori, that their older sister Yael (16½) had been involved in a train accident and had been seriously hurt.
Later, they were told that Yael had died.
Some two decades after this incident that changed Roi Offenbacher’s life forever, he decided to break the silence. Through his work on the thesis he wrote for his master’s degree in social work, and the tasks he carried out at a public clinic, he discovered the unraveling of the relationship between individuals and their siblings who have committed suicide.
He took everything he learned and put it all together in a new Hebrew book: More Than One, Less than Two: Siblings of suicide victims – a personal and social journey, which was recently published by Modan as part of a series called Psyche.
“It’s much easier for me to peek into the lives of other families and not deal with my own situation,” says Offenbacher, who interviewed dozens of siblings of people who’d committed suicide, and didn’t stop speaking with them even after he’d finished his thesis.
Through these discussions, he was able to find a way to finally deal with his own personal tragedy.
Roi and Ori Offenbacher are two of some thousand siblings of about 500 suicides every year in Israel. More Israelis commit suicide every year than are killed in traffic accidents, but not much is written about the families that are left behind to mourn their loved ones.
In addition, even less has been investigated about the effect suicide has on sisters and brothers of its victims.
In absolute numbers, they form the lion’s share of bereaved family members, and yet they remain invisible.
Researchers call them the forgotten mourners.
This is clear in the Hebrew terminology. “There are the words widow and widower, and orphan for someone who’s lost his parents, but there’s no word for someone who’s lost a sibling,” says Offenbacher. The word shchol (bereavement), is used in modern Hebrew to refer to a person who has lost a family member – including a sibling.
Bereaved siblings are used to being asked, “So, how are your parents dealing with their loss?” instead of being asked how they themselves are handling the hardship. I have experienced this many times while helping bereaved siblings: They don’t want to add to their parents’ suffering and so they remain quiet.
I’ve seen people who waited until their parents died to finally give themselves permission to mourn siblings they lost so many years before. All those long years, they’d been told they needed to be strong so they could support their parents. But what about you? “I felt a responsibility toward my family. I asked if my sister would ever smile again, because I wanted her to continue to exist. It wasn’t a question, it was a request from a child who’d completely lost his way, and for one moment was able to see the cloud thickening above him. Even after Yael committed suicide, my parents made sure to make us feel safe and that the family was stable.”
It feels like people have a lot of anger toward their siblings who committed suicide.
“When my class’s school trip was canceled, the first thing I thought was, ‘That’s not fair.’ That was my initial feeling about loss. Siblings’ feelings of anger are very complicated. I’ve never had anyone say to me: ‘I’m just angry.’ “It’s a paradox, because the victim here is also the perpetrator. At the same time that you’re angry at the murderer, you’re grieving for the victim. You also identify with and admire the victim, but these are things you’d never verbalize – not even to a therapist, and certainly not to a family member. It’s incredibly frightening.”
It took Offenbacher three years until he was ready to open the letter Yael had left him before she died. In the letter, she’d written, “I hope that one day you’ll have enough strength to deal with this and try to move on.”
When he was 20, he decided it was time to read the diary Yael had written. Until then, he’d wanted absolutely no connection with her death or with the void she’d left.
“I felt so much shame,” he continues. “I’d encountered death against my will. Yael had also gone to my school, and so everyone knew about the suicide, and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t even want to go to the funeral. My nine-year-old brother didn’t go.
“I didn’t want to read the letter she left for me, so I stuck it in my drawer. I conveniently lost the pen she left me as a gift at school one day. In retrospect, I realize that I lost it because I was so angry at her, and I didn’t want to own anything that reminded me of her. I wanted people to understand that it was her, not me.
“When I was giving a speech to psychologists working in the public sector, someone asked me how they should have approached me. I told them that nothing would have made me talk back then. I just wanted to be left alone.
“The first time I let myself begin to process Yael’s death was when I read her letter. That was the first time I let myself grieve for her and cry. Until that moment, I’d completely disassociated myself. What struck me the hardest was the realization that she was my sister, that I was connected to her.”
Offenbacher began using all his energy to fill the unbearably empty void. The first thing he told his parents they must do was let his little brother, Ori, move into Yael’s old room.
“I was using Ori as a tool to conquer a new frontier,” Offenbacher wrote in his book. “The benefit was twofold.
Firstly, I would get my own room, and secondly, Ori would help fill the void. It’s true, I did feel a bit guilty for benefiting from my sister’s disappearance and from my brother’s naiveté.
“But on the other hand, what was the point in preserving her room as a memorial? It was like a gaping hole at the entrance of our home. A week after the suicide seemed like the proper time to return to normal life.
“My mother granted my request with a heavy heart.
She went into the room, sorted through Yael’s stuff, packed everything up, and put it all inside a closet that had been purchased especially to hold her things.
This closet stood in our living room as a monument to her memory, just as her grave was a monument to her body.
The rest of our house moved on with life, but this one spot remained timeless. We would tiptoe past the closet, whose doors we never opened.”
One of the decisions Offenbacher made while writing his book was that he wanted the interviews he was holding with the sisters and brothers of suicide victims to take place in locations that were significant to their stories.
“I felt like these stories needed to be given a specific space,” he recalls. “For years, I’d try to stifle the fact that my sister had committed suicide. I tried with all my might to erase any memory of her, and I knew that so many other families were doing this exact same thing, too.
“I figured everyone had a suicide memorial they could take me to, like Masada, but it turns out most people don’t, and most suicides actually take place at home, in the dark. That’s usually where memories are hoarded, too. Even cemeteries are complicated when it comes to suicide.”
There is another difficulty that is also the product of this paradox. On the one hand, suicide is a phenomenon that people like to discuss, that has been around since the start of time, and is an ongoing issue. On the other hand, exposing people too much to the phenomenon could prove dangerous by influencing others and perhaps inducing them to commit suicide.
In recent decades, in the therapy community, it is thought that suicide is a subject that does need to be acknowledged, but in a responsible fashion.
“In their effort to be extra careful, suicide has become a topic that is only discussed by professionals,” Offenbacher explains. “Literature about this subject has become very dry and full of statistics, without the inclusion of any personal stories, which makes these books very hard to read, of course.
“I, too, was scared that someone who was on the verge of committing suicide would read my book. I realized that the only way I was going to be able to tell my story was by dissociating myself from this fear. I wrote about people who are living and not about those who are dead.”
Offenbacher also decided not to discuss the question of “why” or talk about warning signs. “I didn’t want to deal with the question of how to prevent someone from committing suicide,” he says. “This is a very important question, but it’s not connected with my story. And there aren’t many good answers to that question anyway.
“The fact is, we’re not very good at preventing suicide.
Even in times during which it was absolutely forbidden to commit suicide, such as in the Middle Ages, people still found a way to do it without it being called such. In the US, this is called ‘suicide by cop.’ “Thirty percent of killings of civilians by policemen involves people who wanted to commit suicide and so they created a situation in which a policeman would be required to kill them. We see this a lot with Palestinians, too, such as when a girl waves around a pair of scissors at a checkpoint. It’s a little bit like what my sister did with the train driver – she forced him to kill her.”
The act of suicide has existed from time immemorial.
Humans have retained the right to end their own lives. Jewish literature is full of stories about suicide, and not just for the sake of preserving the sanctity of God’s name.
“I’ve always loved the famous line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ I think this was a true reflection of our grief.
Only after I read the book did I realize that Anna took her life in exactly the same way my sister did. And so it follows that her brother, Prince Stepan, and I are miserable in the same way. In general, it was important to me to connect our private stories to the much broader story, which represents suicide in society, and gives it a place in culture, religion and myths on which we’ve grown up.”
Once Offenbacher was sitting in a military cemetery with a woman whose brother had committed suicide.
He wanted the discussion of suicide to be carried out in the open, not in private behind closed doors.
“She felt very alone. She told me that her family doesn’t ever talk about suicide, and that she’d never met anyone whose sibling had committed suicide,” he said.
“On Remembrance Day, when everyone is standing next to the grave of their loved one, she peers around, trying to identify others who’ve suffered a similar fate.
She has an inkling about a few, but of course she would never dare ask them straight out.
“I met her after I’d already met a few siblings of suicide victims whose loved ones were buried in the same section of the cemetery. I told her that I knew for a fact that quite a few of the people buried here had committed suicide, and that this was actually the most common cause of death in this section.
“It’s true, though – it’s not listed anywhere official that the soldier had committed suicide. Some families prefer this ambiguity. They prefer to say that their loved one ‘fell while serving his country’ or ‘fell in the line of duty,’ but the reality is actually much more complex than this.
“Sometimes people do want to talk about it, but they’re not sure how to go about it, or they’re afraid of hurting other family members.”
On the one hand, it’s well known that talking about things is very therapeutic and is an important part of one’s recovery. But, on the other hand, people feel as if it’s impossible to talk about it.
There’s a feeling of intense shame, as well as a sense of danger. Stories of suicide carry a destructive potential for another suicide in the same family to take place. The most well-known example is the writer Ernest Hemingway’s family. Within four generations, five family members had committed suicide, including Hemingway himself. The effort to conceal the suicide exists on a personal level, but also on a public level.
For example, in the early 1960s, Hemingway’s death was not reported as a suicide, and instead the code words “under tragic circumstances” were used. In newspapers from that period, strange headlines appeared such as “The body of a Dimona resident who died of tragic circumstances was found hanging.”
In addition, the defense establishment never listed someone as having committed suicide. Most newspapers simply stopped reporting suicides, since they were not news anymore. Only when the suicide victim was the housing minister, former chief of staff, or a poet did papers report their deaths as suicides.
Referring to suicide as “tragic circumstances” is a way to obscure the existence of the phenomenon. If there is no specific definition, then it can’t be a social phenomenon. And if it’s not a social phenomenon, then it’s a tragedy that individuals need to deal with on their own.
“If suicide is taken out of social discourse and left to private narratives, we are telling people that they’re all alone; that if they speak out, their voices will only be heard in private. This is the worst possible nightmare,” Offenbacher concludes.
“I’ve heard many stories about families who don’t talk about the suicide of a loved one, or even go so far as to deny it even happened. Sometimes, siblings of suicide victims say they know that it was a suicide, but that they don’t talk about it so as not to sadden their parents.
“The memory of the incident remains within them like a frozen lake that will never melt. When I started interviewing siblings, quite a few people told me they know someone, but he doesn’t talk about it.”
When I approached people directly, they always agreed to speak with me willingly, especially after I told them my sister had also committed suicide. I think that silence – every silence – is the result of two beliefs: that it’s impossible to speak about suicide, and that there’s no one who would want to listen anyway.
“Suicide is threatening and also shameful. There’s an obvious difference between a person who dies in a traffic accident or from cancer, and someone who took their life of their own free will. The question is, what does that say about us as a family and as a community? It’s a heavy burden to carry.”
Ever since his sister committed suicide, the questions have been piling up in Offenbacher’s mind: How does suicide fit in with society? What role in society do siblings of suicide victims play? Can siblings view their own narrative not as a story of shame, but as a story of courage? “The definition of courage is to face death and not be afraid. But as a person who wants to live, I cannot understand how a person can kill himself,” Offenbacher says.
In his book Three Failed Equations, Offenbacher describes all the efforts that have been made to solve the complicated question of how many siblings a person has.
“When you’re asked how many siblings you have, just give the answer of how many you have now. No one is asking to look at your family tree. If you currently have one sibling, then just say one. The problem is, giving that answer never felt right to me. There are also times when it’s preferable to refrain from giving complicated or half answers.
“For example, if there happens to be someone in earshot who knows the true story, pretending that the existence of a sibling who committed suicide didn’t exist is denying your past. Another method is to say that you have two siblings, since this is what is written on the sign on the front door of your parents’ house.
“This response feels more genuine to me. We are a family of five: two parents, two live children, and one dead child. But then the person you’re talking with might continue with follow-up questions, like, who is the oldest or what do your siblings do for a living? They might even ask you whether you are very close to your sibling? It’s a very slippery slope, and a huge dilemma. Do you tell a white lie or be embarrassingly honest? “Whichever way you choose to answer, it’s a difficult question. A few years ago, I came up with a new response: ‘More than one, but less than two.’ I don’t expand on this statement, but just leave this vague pronouncement open. It’s obvious from this statement that my family has undergone some kind of trauma.
“This way, the person who asked you the question receives an answer, and can leave it at that if he wants.
Responding in this way frees me from responsibility and also tests the courage of the person I’m speaking with. If he desires, he can delve down deeper and get more specific answers.
“When my sister committed suicide, I remember being pretty mixed up. When I heard that they’d canceled my class’s school trip to Masada,” Offenbacher recalls, “I realized how much the suicide was going to affect my life. I was so incredibly ashamed that the entire class had to miss out on the trip because of the suicide.
“Since then, I’ve stayed away from Masada. I couldn’t get excited about Masada and felt so betrayed. About 10 years later, while I was working on my bachelor’s degree in history, I wrote my first seminar paper on the Masada myth. I tried to disprove it as well as I could, and prove that the Jewish extremists led by Elazar Ben Yair had killed themselves just like my sister had.
“I began compiling a list of famous people who’d committed suicide, such as Sarah Aaronsohn, the Nili hero, or Samson from the Bible. In retrospect, I think working on this paper helped me to finally be ready to face my sister’s death. Writing about all these other people who’d committed suicide made me feel like my family wasn’t alone, that our story was important, and that we could finally tell it.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner. Originally published in Ma’ariv.