Dr. Norman Farberow, 1918-2015

Norman-Farberow.jpgDr. Norman Farberow, the psychologist who died last week at the age of 97, was one of the three pillars who practically invented the modern field of suicidology - or, the science and study of suicide - here in Southern California.

Along with Dr. Edwin Shneidman and Dr. Robert Litman, the trio started the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center in the late 1950s, with an initial grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Their research grew beyond their initial scope and soon included a 24-hour hotline to help those people considering suicide.

Dr. Shneidman was the most erudite of the group, a Moby Dick-quoting psychologist who wrote elegant treatises about the meaning of life and death. Dr. Farberow was more down to earth. He wore double-knit pants, wide-collared shirts that went out of style in 1975, and metal-framed glasses. He introduced himself as "Norm" - never "Dr. Farberow" or "Norman" - and this fit his personality. He was as unadorned as his name.

I met Norm not long after my sister, Margot, completed suicide in 1986. I was working for the L.A. Weekly newspaper at the time, and I'd heard that the Suicide Prevention Center offered support groups for people like me - so-called "survivors after suicide." I made an appointment to interview Dr. Farberow about this topic.

These support groups began in Los Angeles in 1981 after an LASPC volunteer named Janet Belland, whose brother had completed suicide, pointed out that survivors - the relatives and friends who'd watched their loved ones spiral into depression or madness or addiction - faced a unique, complicated grief. Shame and guilt haunted the aftermath of suicide, and survivors were left with unanswerable questions and waves of unassuaged anger, pain, and loss. Always, the loss.

Up to that point, the Suicide Prevention Center had focused its research on the dead: what led them to take their own lives? What were the causes of depression? What role did drugs and alcohol play in the risk factors of suicide?

After Belland convinced LASPC leadership (including licensed clinical social worker Sam "Mickey" Heilig) that the bereaved also deserved attention, LASPC started eight-week support groups for suicide survivors. As Dr. Shneidman put it: "I believe that the person who commits suicide puts his psychological skeleton in the survivor's emotional closet."

During my first meeting with Dr. Farberow, I found him to be accommodating and polite. But he would not allow me to observe a survivor group as a journalist. The sessions were confidential, he explained. When I asked whether I could participate as a survivor, not as a journalist, he welcomed me into a club that none of us wanted to join.

I was not comfortable discussing the details of my sister's suicide with complete strangers, but I soon found that talking with other survivors and listening to their stories helped me to better understand the despair that Margot experienced in the last years of her life, what Dr. Shneidman has described as "psych-ache." The sessions brought comfort, indeed healing, and allowed me to get on with my life.

In short order I was asked to train as a volunteer co-facilitator for Survivor After Suicide groups and found myself working with Norm. He was the most compassionate listener I've ever encountered. He had a preternatural calm. He allowed for silences to stretch, knowing that pauses were necessary amid the emotional morass. He understood that his place was not to preach or judge, but to provide survivors with a safe haven to vent, to cry, to curse, to collapse.

He'd often begin a session with a question: "So, how was your week?," and not say another word until 90 minutes had passed and boxes of tissues had been demolished, when he'd glance at the clock and say, "Well, I'm sorry but we'll have to wrap this up until next week."

I could readily gauge the groups' effectiveness through body posture and facial expressions. In week one survivors entered the room hunched over and scarcely able to speak. Eight weeks later, there were still tears -- always tears -- but also smiles and hugs. People discovered that while their lives were forever altered and their hearts scarred, they had survived. They discovered that they were stronger than they knew.

The cumulative effect, group after group, year after year, was awesome to behold. The stifling stigma of suicide lessened as one survivor after another re-engaged with the world. As a group survivors became a small, yet powerfully effective force in combatting the stigma of mental illness and suicide.

Norm watched this development with undisguised glee. He had helped create the modern study of suicide with his colleagues and now, with survivors as an important linchpin, he had seeded a populist movement.

He never took credit for this, allowing that he had simply listened to the voices, to the needs, of survivors. Unless I happened to mention his background during a group session, few people realized that he was a world-renown psychologist. He was, well, "Norm." (I should mention here that he was not paid for this. He probably "worked" for 20 years with survivors without receiving a penny.)

Until his health worsened, Norm continued to participate in these survivor groups. He attended events for survivors, greeting myriad friends with his unassuming charm. Always he listened, but he was never silent about his own life: when asked, he talked about his wife Pearl; his love of tennis; the weekly lunch dates he maintained with a crew of pals.

His legacy - and that of the original founders -- lives on. The LASPC is now part of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, based in Culver City, including the 24-hour suicide hotline, where the study of suicide and suicide prevention continues apace. Survivor After Suicide groups have become commonplace across the country and the world. Those of us fortunate enough to have known and worked with Norm, those of us who called him friend, will miss him dearly.

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