Jeff Raz: I Lost A Loved One To Suicide and Here Is What You Should Know
An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman
Writing about how my parents and friends have died helps me feel differently — less fear, more empathy; less anger, more breath. It has also allowed me to talk about suicide and death much more easily, which is something of a superpower in today’s world. In all my work, I let comedy and tragedy slam right up against each other, so I’ve found ways to bring humor about death and suicide into my books and plays, and my life.
Losing a loved one to suicide is a heart-wrenching experience. It can also be confusing, and it usually comes with a lot of mixed-up feelings, including anger and guilt. What are some things that family members would like other people to know about losing a loved one to suicide? As a part of this interview series, I had the distinct pleasure to interview Jeff Raz.
Jeff Raz has written three novels, the Circus Trilogy, inspired by a lifetime of performing in variety shows, circuses (including Cirque du Soleil), and acting in plays around San Francisco, nationally and on Broadway. He also produces and directs shows, writes plays, teaches, and works with organizations on communications and leadership through Jeff Raz Consulting. As an entrepreneur, he has cofounded six arts organizations including a couple of performing companies, an international festival, a school for professional clowns and a healthcare clowning non-profit. www.jeffraz.com
Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Before we dive in, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?
I started as teen-aged street juggler in Berkeley, went to theater school in a tiny town in Humboldt County, California, and I have been involved in many aspects of circus and theater, as well as communications consulting, since then.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My latest book, Love Death Circus, started as a love letter to my circus community after I lost three dear friends, and my mother, in quick succession. Circus performers are usually seen as frivolous — sequined acrobats living charmed lives — and we often play into this image. The truth is grittier and as full of tragedy, and comedy, as anyone else’s life. Love Death Circus welcomes readers into the excitement and pain as the community cares for the sick and then mourns their dead with over-the-top, one-of-a-kind memorial shows. It also includes the hard and deeply emotional work of caring for a loved one who is dying.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t simultaneously try to take your life and try to save your life.”
My best friend, who suffered from suicidal depression, often said this after she got diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, she decided to try to save her life.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your loss?
Yes, I do feel comfortable sharing — my father had bi-polar disorder and committed suicide when I was eight years old. I don’t remember much about him but when I was writing my play Father-Land, I read the letters he sent home during World War II from the front lines in Germany, as well as a journal he kept 20 year later, in the last months of his life.
The word for suicide in German is Selbstmord (self-murder) and my father’s suicide fits that description — murder is violent (he shot himself with a rifle) and it leaves a legacy of emotional violence (my mother got blamed for his death and our family split apart for many years).
What was the scariest part of it? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
My father hadn’t been home for a while, working with Linus Pauling in California (he was a physicist) and then back to New York for a month in Bellview Hospital before he was released and shot himself.
I remember my mother sitting on my bed in the basement of our home in Huntington, Long Island early in the morning and telling me, “Daddy died.” I don’t remember how I reacted, but my older brother asked her how he died, she said he had been sick, and my brother said, “You don’t die from the kind of sickness Daddy had.” That’s when I got scared.
Later, when I heard that bi-polar disorder can be hereditary, I worried about myself (I have not had mental health issues, thankfully).
How did you react in the short term?
Everyone at school started acting strange, like I was a completely different person. I figured out that I could end an argument or avoid punishment or get some sympathy by mumbling, “My father just died.” But if I mentioned suicide, all the sympathy disappeared and something dangerous took its place.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
The dust didn’t settle for a couple of years, until my mother got accepted into a graduate program at U.C. Berkeley and we moved west. Since my father’s family blamed his death on my mother, and my mother’s small clan lived on the East Coast, my entire family shrunk down to three people — my brother, my mother and me.
Berkeley was lightyears from Long Island, and I threw myself into this strange new world. My brother and I didn’t talk about our dad much, between ourselves or with other people. Since our mother cried when we said, “Daddy,” we figured she hated him and kept our mouths shut.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal, at least to some degree?
As a professional artist, I end up working on projects that help me heal and grow but that is never my goal at the beginning. Writing and touring the solo play Father-Land, and then using it in my second novel The Snow Clown, gave me an opportunity to get to know my father in ways that changed my life.
In my own grief journey, I found writing to be cathartic. Did you engage in any writing during that time, such as journaling, poetry, or writing letters? If yes, we’d love to hear about any stories or examples.
Writing plays and novels have helped me better understand death, suicide and mental illness, intellectually and emotionally. For example, Willa Woods, a character in my novel Love Death Circus, suffered from suicidal depression before she got diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to convince her oncologist that she would only consider chemotherapies that allowed her to keep taking her antidepressants. This is the oncologist’s reaction to Willa telling her she won’t take a promising chemotherapy because she only wants to live “with all her marbles.”
“Dr. Sands’ jaw tightens. She was taught to save lives and she was a good student…Now here’s a woman saying, ‘Don’t save my life.’ That’s suicidal. But Willa isn’t crazy, and she clearly wants to stay that way, which is why she won’t take the chemo that would most likely save her life. And that’s crazy. Dr. Sands tries to see the madness in her patient’s eyes but it’s not there. This woman looks completely sane.”
Eventually Willa dies of cancer in her own bed, surrounded by friends, happy to be alive until the last moment. Writing the character of Willa, and her oncologist, helped me understand that making a choice to die isn’t always “self-murder.”
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Finding alternatives to the family story about my father’s suicide, which is summed up in this excerpt from The Snow Clown, spoken by the “Ghost Father.”
“I grew up in Rochester, New York, a nice Jewish family. I joined the army in 1944, didn’t see too much action in the war…When I got home, I went to college, met my wife and became a physicist. Unfortunately, I had a chemical imbalance that made it impossible for me to work after a few years, so I considered what it would be like to live in institutions, and I decided to take my own life.”
Later in the book, I propose a different story: My father was 16 when he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army to “save our race.” He ended up fighting on the front lines in Germany. These experiences must have scarred him and could have triggered his bi-polar disorder.
In 2021, during a family Zoom reunion, an older cousin said, “Jimmy killed a lot of men in the war. He was never the same after he came home.” The thought of my dad killing people, he was a gentle giant and an avowed pacifist, made my stomach churn but I realized that my alternate story of his death was probably right. These days, he might be diagnosed with PTSD.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
I am deeply grateful to my father’s family.
I was working at Lincoln Center in the late ‘80’s and the cast of “Comedy of Errors” always went to a Japanese restaurant between shows. I was racing toward the stage door after the matinee one day when a large group of people blocked my way. I tried to get by, but they closed ranks. A small woman stepped forward and said, “We’re your cousins!” I yelled, “I don’t have any cousins!” It turned out I did have cousins.
A few years later, I was on tour with a circus that went bankrupt. A group of us, performers and technicians, decided to keep the tour going and, to save money, we agreed to ask our friends and family for free housing in every city on the route. When I realized that we were going to Lincoln, Nebraska, my heart sank — I had to call my aunt, my father’s baby sister, and ask for her help. My aunt housed and fed the entire circus and then got me a job teaching and performing Father-Land, a show about her brother’s suicide, in the University of Nebraska’s Artist Diversity Residency Program.
I’ve been close with my cousins since that day backstage at Lincoln Center and I traveled regularly to Lincoln, Nebraska for work, and to visit my aunt and uncle, for over a decade. Now having a large family, the family that was torn away from me when I was eight, has helped me cope and heal (and laugh and love a lot).
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
There are many ways to die.
When she felt her life wasn’t worth living, my mother stopped eating and drinking. In Love Death Circus, the character inspired by my mother is impatient to die. “…I started to decay. First a little pain, a few days in bed and then, in almost no time, I couldn’t walk out the door without being sick for weeks. Now my body is done. It’s been done. So why the hell is it holding on so tight when it’s time to give up the ghost?”
My mother died peacefully in her own bed. This was not self-murder — it was quiet, planned, and peaceful. It left a legacy of grief, of course, but not emotional violence.
What did you do to get help and support for yourself?
Supporting people as they die also supports me. I have been part of several different communities who supported a loved one as they were dying and supported each other, too. Love Death Circus is framed by four of these deaths and looks closely at the community around the people who died.
Right now, I am supporting a friend who has serious cancer, along with her family and community. There are hard moments — hours in the ER, bad days after chemo — and there are joyful meals, walks in the rain and family band jams.
What signs would you tell parents, friends or loved ones to look for in people they think may need help?
I will leave the answer to this question to psychologists and other folks who know about the signs to look for much better than I do.
Thank you for sharing all of this. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are five thing you want people to know about losing a loved one to suicide?
Please share a story or example for each.
- Talk about suicide with people you suspect are thinking about killing themselves, as well as in general conversation. Speak simply and directly, without euphemisms.
- If a loved one has killed themself, try to avoid searching for blame (this is hard, but blame is corrosive). Attempt to break family cycles of blame, even decades after the fact (I reunited with my father’s family 25 years after he died).
- I imagine most families create stories to try to explain a suicide — “It was his wife’s fault,” “It was a chemical imbalance,” etc. Explore alternatives to these stories. I’m not sure if this is helpful to everyone but finding out how much the war affected my father helped me feel more empathy for him and less fear that I would follow in his footsteps.
- When someone takes their own life, they are not necessarily committing “self-murder” (for example, some states have laws that allow terminally ill people to “die with dignity”). Think about the details of that person’s life and what their death has left behind.
- Writing about how my parents and friends have died helps me feel differently — less fear, more empathy; less anger, more breath. It has also allowed me to talk about suicide and death much more easily, which is something of a superpower in today’s world. In all my work, I let comedy and tragedy slam right up against each other, so I’ve found ways to bring humor about death and suicide into my books and plays, and my life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
A movement that starts with people talking about death and suicide and mental illness, then finding and celebrating creative ways for families and communities to support people who feel suicidal. The next step would be to discover and create rituals for memorializing and remembering someone who has killed themself and getting laws passed like “death with dignity.” While all this is going on, we would create a mental health infrastructure that is well funded, cutting edge (including arts therapies and other alternatives to massive medication) and accessible to everyone who needs support. Everyone.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
I’m afraid that the person I’d most like to share a meal with will not see this, even if you tag them. I’d love to sit and talk with my big brother, Johnathan Raz, who died of a rare illness 23 years ago. Jonathan was an amazing cook and poet as well as a bio statistician. As adults with grown children of our own, we would sort out our childhoods, our parents’ deaths and eat great food.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for your courage in telling your story. We greatly appreciate your time, and we wish you only continued success and good health.
About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!