Gerald “Jerry” Appelstein has experienced a life of highs and lows.
He’s had a successful career in the oil business. He’s a noted arts philanthropist.
And several years ago, he lost his son, Jason, to suicide.
Appelstein, a member of the Foundation Board at Montclair State University, is on a mission now — to bring greater awareness to the world about this epidemic that has cost so many wonderful human beings their lives.
And, recently, he sat down with Lisa Feorenzo, The Observer’s co-owner, and journalist Kevin Canessa, on a Zoom call (which you may view in its entirety at www.theobserver.com) to discuss suicide — and then to relate it to a COVID-19 world.
Why he’s doing this
Appelstein had planned to do a tribute to his son, Jason, before the pandemic hit. It would have benefitted the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in conjunction with ballet and the performing arts. Without the benefit, instead he went on the Donna Drake Show, which airs on TV-10/55 Saturday mornings at 6:30 a.m.
As the show began, the host, Drake, introduced Appelstein as the father of a child who “committed suicide.” While it shocked him — he’d never been introduced that way before — he was taken aback by it all and was also enamored by Drake’s compassion.
And it led him to think of something President Bill Clinton once said when he met the late former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela.
“And he said, ‘You don’t judge a man by how many times he falls, but by how many times he gets back up,’” Appelstein said quoting the 42nd President of the United States. “If I were going to explain myself, I’d just say I am like a weeble. You can keep on popping me and whether it’s genetics or just some aspect of the universe, it gives me the strength. I just have such a celebration of living. I think you can’t go through this long a life span without having some pain or some trauma. And I just felt like, stand up, use the fact that I have the strength to stand up to help others to be able to do the same.”
Going back to Drake’s introduction, Appelstein says it helped relax him to share more of his experience dealing with suicide.
“It helped us to get into aspects of my son,” he said. “It really stinks to lose your child. But it stinks, squared, when the relationship with your child is so good. My son and I were absolute pals. We rock climbed together, we (went) SCUBA diving together.
“We connected as men. He came to me for advice as a teenager asking how to go about interactions as he started to go about the social interactions of being in like, in lust and all that happens when your hormones are raging. You know, puberty and on.”
Despite this tremendous shared relationship, Appelstein warned that teens won’t always share all of the deepest and darkest secrets in their lives. As strong as their bond was, Jason kept certain parts of his life private.
And with that said, Appelstein says he saw no signs — none at all — that led him to believe his son was even considering taking his own life.
And in a COVID world, that notion makes it so much harder for all human beings who may one day suffer loss because of the trauma caused by this pandemic. In Jason’s case, it wasn’t just Appelstein who was shocked by the loss. His two daughters, Jason’s sisters, also had no idea he was suicidal.
Appelstein pointed to a pyramid that starts with your best friends. Maybe siblings. Then parents and others. No one in Jason’s pyramid had any idea, in fact.
He says the American Society for Suicide Prevention, itself, says suicide reasons are often a mystery because unlike when someone is hurting physically and there’s a sign of injury, with mental illness, there’s still, too often, even as we’ve discussed on the pages of this newspaper, a stigma, “a shame with mental illness,” that is invisible.
“And it’s such a shame,” Appelstein said. “I spoke at his funeral how Jason had a village, like Hillary Clinton spoke of, it takes a village. He had a village of people that would have taken bullets for him! If he had just explained to us he was in deep trauma, probably dealing with some bi-polarity, some alcoholism, some drug addiction, getting his girlfriend pregnant for the third time and her not miscarrying and all the other stresses that would have taken a grown human being to his knees.”
So, because of all of this, Appelstein is speaking out to fill in the gaps. He says people will wrongfully think of him and wonder what he’s like behind closed doors having lost a son to suicide.
“Don’t jump to the conclusion there’s an alter-ego behind closed doors,” he said. “The reality is what you see is in all likelihood what you get behind closed doors.”
There’s not always a failure to connect when someone loses a child to suicide, he says, and there’s not always a way to tell, as was the case with Jason.
The stigma, meanwhile, has to be removed.
Because in Jason’s case, it was impossible to try to get inside his head. And he urges parents — or anyone dealing with someone who may be sad — to not even try to get inside their heads.
“That’s a dangerous place to inhabit,” he said. “You don’t want to go there … and any time there is a stigma, we inhibit growth.”
He says he can infer some things Jason may have been feeling. But there’s only so much.
“If you’re feeling this much shame and this much belief that ending your life is preferable than living, then you have to have a tremendous amount of shame.”
And because of all of this, Appelstein says many of his friends approach him as if he’s “a wounded bird.”
“I don’t want to be treated like that because I didn’t die and I don’t d feel a responsibility for his death. I loved him as much as I could. And I wish I could have saved him. I will always feel a sense of loss and grieve the loss, but I don’t feel like this was my deal. If anything, it’s made me a better human being. And this whole effort (to bring awareness to suicide) is to say, ‘Hello, hear me roar.’”
In other words, the situation is too important to tip-toe around the reality.
What would Appelstein say to a reader, right now, thinking of suicide?
Appelstein says it’s important to realize the immense damage that is caused for the family members and friends of anyone who takes their own life.
“I’ve yet to find somebody who took their own life who did not leave behind a trail of tears,” he said. “Think of this trail of tears and love for this person. If they understood fully … or could look back … and see how the world is, and is changed by the loss of this beautiful human being, they wouldn’t do it. They’d see the damage they created. And maybe rethink. And that’s the point. The hope is not only to save your life (a person thinking of suicide) but also to vastly improve the quality of life for those left behind.”
Because, as he says, it affects the parents, the friends of the parents, the friends, and “it just cascades.”
As such, each year, there are up to 60,000 suicides — and that doesn’t count the number of (thankfully) unsuccessful attempts. And, up to 5% of the U.S. population is affected by suicide, a number he says is “too much and mind-boggling.
“We just have to do a better job.”
And if this story, because of Appelstein’s openness and transparency helps to save just one life — and he believes this story will — we’ve all done our jobs.
If you are so inclined, Appelstein suggests supporting the American Society for Suicide Prevention as the best starting point.
If you’re thinking of taking your own life as you read this, please visit asfp.org, call (800) 273-8255 or text “talk” to 741741. There are counselors out there 24/7/365 who want to help you to make a different decision.. In fact, you may also send him an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out to him on Facebook. Search Gerard Appelstein — and he’ll be ready to listen and do all he can to let you know you’re not alone — and help is on the way.
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.