Some people run the Boston Marathon to fulfill a personal goal. Some are lifelong athletes who make running 26.2 miles look like a stroll through Trader Joe’s. And then there are charity runners like Chai in the Hub honoree and Jewish Community Relations Council board member Samantha Joseph, a social impact consultant who will run this year’s marathon for suicide support organization Samaritans. She’s running in honor of her aunt Gail, who died by suicide when Samantha was in high school. She hopes to raise $20,000 (donate here). We talked to her about her motivation to run, about suicide and how to help a family member or friend who might be in trouble.
Why did you get involved with the Samaritans?
I lost my aunt to suicide when I was 16, during my senior year of high school, in 1999. It was very big loss for our family. That loss was a big part of my identity. I finally reached a point after graduate school when I felt prepared to do something that would prevent others from experiencing the loss I did. I had come to the point in my grief where I wanted to be helpful to other people. I started volunteering on their help line answering crisis phone calls, which is a very challenging experience. I did that for two years and was asked to join their board, which I have served on for the past six years. But I didn’t want to lose the hands-on volunteering, so I’m also a grief support services volunteer, helping families who have just experienced loss, and I’m very proud to run the Boston Marathon for the second time on the Samaritans team.
How did Judaism influence your choice to run?
I am the daughter of a Reform rabbi in Hingham. I grew up with a strong sense of tikkun olam. It’s not our job to fix the whole world, but we have to try. I have experienced my own mental health challenges, and I have dedicated my life to helping others. If we can save one person’s life, it matters. Everyone’s life matters.
Can you reflect on what might have led your aunt to suicide?
One of the most challenging things about experiencing a loss to suicide is that you will spend the rest of your life asking why. Even if there might seem to be an obvious trigger, like a job loss or illness, research shows that suicides often occur when a person has experienced a number of hardships that lead them to believe things will never get better. Sometimes the trigger is really just the final straw, and not the real reason. In the final years of her life, my aunt was very isolated from our family and despite our efforts to help her, she really didn’t allow us to be part of her life. We will all spend the rest of our lives asking why.
One thing I like to clarify for people is that I don’t use the word “committed.” She died by suicide. A commitment is something you enter into rationally with purpose. Many people who survive suicide attempts say they regret them. She died from a mental illness. I believe “committed” implies a stronger sense of purpose than what she was capable of.
I really don’t know, and I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering. One of the hardest parts about losing her this way is that for many people, her death now becomes the defining aspect of her. It overshadows everything she accomplished and makes her very one-dimensional. I don’t think any one of us would want to be remembered only for one action we took, no matter what that was. She did die by suicide, but before that, she was a loving aunt and a funny, warm person who made a big impression on everyone she met.
What was your relationship with her like?
We visited her often as children, and she visited us. She was amazing and the most fun adult I knew to be around. She loved the color purple, and her apartment was full of purple things. She worked as a publicist for NBC and worked directly with the casts of shows like “Friends” and “Will & Grace,” who adored her. It was always clear to us how much she loved us. As I became a teenager, she was in a period of her life where she chose to become isolated from our family. It was very sad for all of us.
How did you find out about your aunt’s death?
I was in Israel, studying abroad, for my senior year of high school. I remember the principal needed to talk to me, and I thought it had something to do with my behavior in class. It never occurred to me that something like this could happen, and the news was life-altering. After telling me that my aunt had died, he handed me a phone and when I held it to my ear, I could hear my dad’s voice. It was truly devastating, and to this day, the hardest day of my life.
How can we help people who might be struggling? What do we say? Not say?
It’s natural human instinct to want to distract them or make it better: “Oh, that’s tough, doing anything fun this weekend?” But the best thing you can do is acknowledge their feelings, validate them and even sit quietly with them in those moments—steering toward the pain instead of away.
If you believe that person is truly a danger to themselves or others, I would encourage you to reach out for help. If the risk is imminent, you should call 911. If the risk is not imminent, but you just need more information on how to support your friend, or you need support yourself, you can speak with a therapist or call Samaritans. We have a crisis help line; we’re there 24/7.
Why do people consider suicide?
Research generally shows that people consider suicide when they cannot imagine the way they are feeling will ever change. They think it will never get better. If you love or care about someone feeling suicidal, you can try to help them remember other times in their life where they were in a lot of pain, and things did improve. Nothing is permanent, no matter how hard it is or how long it might take to recover. There is always hope.
How can someone who might be struggling ask for help?
It’s very hard for us to ask other people for help and to say how we feel. But most people get tremendous pleasure and positive benefits from helping others. We all want to help. Asking for help is a way of deepening the relationship. If you’re struggling, more people want to be there than you could imagine. You’re not a burden and your family and friends would be devastated to lose you. We have to change the culture of asking for help.