After a series of family losses, Adrienne Suson is reaching out to the bereaved through a new Facebook group.
A pair of sunglasses with rainbow-striped plastic frames are perched high like a headband on Adrienne Suson’s head. The pop of riotous color, her personal signature, was in sharp contrast with the rest of the 34 year old’s look that day: a black tunic top and black leggings, her dark brown hair pulled smoothly up and away from her face in a ponytail.
An overcast February sky was visible through the open blinds in her office at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring where she is program director.
In a few hours, she would be on a plane to Denver, her hometown, for the unveiling of her father’s tombstone. It was a year since his sudden passing — and nearly five years since a different loss upended her life in Denver and brought her to Silver Spring.
After five years of grief following grief, Suson decided to harness what she has learned and create a virtual Jewish community on Facebook for people processing loss and grief.
“There are little positive Jewish nuggets, if you will, that [are left] by whatever in life happens to you, whatever life throws at you,” Suson says. “The most important thing you can do with those little nuggets is to use them as teaching tools and growth opportunities.”
Suson is using a 21st century tool — social media — to create a grief support community, but the seed of her idea was planted two generations ago.
Her paternal grandparents, Irwin and Barbara Suson, both lost their first spouses at a young age. They met each other in the 1960s at a grief counseling group in Denver. Thanks to their participation in the group, “they learned how to grieve not only about their spouse, but they learned how to grieve together and find love, which was huge,” Suson says.
Irwin and Barbara married, the children from their previous marriages forming a Brady Bunch gaggle, and started a Jewish grief support group at their synagogue that they ran for many years.
Irwin died about five years ago. The loss of her spouse this time was different for her grandmother, Suson said. Unlike when her first husband died, Barbara now had adult children and extended family to offer support and comfort.
But Irwin’s death was the first in a cascade of losses for Suson and her family.
‘A shocking time’
Less than two months later, in May 2015, Adrienne’s sister in law, Rachel Adisy Suson, died from muscular dystrophy. Rachel’s husband, and Adrienne’s brother, Rabbi Steven Suson, was left with a 4-year-old-daughter to take care of and a synagogue, Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, to lead. He had arrived at the Conservative congregation three years before.
“It was sort of a shocking time, I wasn’t sure exactly what to do,” Rabbi Suson says in a phone interview. “I knew I had to keep on doing what I needed to do. It was pretty difficult in that I had just taken a new job in a new city where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know what I was going do or where I was going to go, but the community was able to take care of me and help me through that time.”
At the time, Adrienne was two weeks into her “dream job,” working as a preschool director at a Goddard School in Denver. She put the job aside and flew east to be with her brother and help take care of her niece.
“It helped me get through my grieving process, at least for my sister-in-law, because I knew that the one thing I had always promised her was that I would be there for my niece,” she says now.
It was supposed to be temporary. She started working at the synagogue, a part time gig of “just trying to get some young families through the door,” but it morphed into a full time program director position.
“She agreed to come stay with us,” Rabbi Suson says, “and that was good for the congregation because it helped me stay in my role.”
“Even in Denver, I’ve always considered myself a community leader,” Adrienne says. “I’ve always needed to go big.” She cited her parents, David and Connie Suson, active members of their own Jewish community, as her inspiration.
In early 2019, David and Connie were on a wedding anniversary cruise when David contracted Hepatitis A. David’s liver failed. Within two weeks, he was gone.
“We were all just broken at that point. It was too much; just too much loss,”
Adrienne says. “The one thing my dad said, which really helped me get through, was ‘God has a plan for everyone. He’s the one who choses our time on this earth, and who are we to fight it?’ And he really believed that.”
She says she had never seen someone “so calm and ready to go.”
“Unfortunately, I’ve been around a lot of death in my life and I’ve seen people lay in that bed and the rabbi comes and says Shema with them and they’re just laying there, you know. My dad — I stepped out of the room and he said the Shema so loud and so powerfully that I’ll never forget it, like it was so strong and so clear. And that’s how I knew that he was OK with his choices that he made that day” to decline further measures to prolong his life. “He said he would rather say goodbye on his own terms.”
Rather than recede from her communal role, Suson saw an opportunity to get people involved in conversations about Jewish mourning.
“I think we need to educate people on what it’s like to be bereaved,” she says. “When it comes to Jewish grief and Jewish loss, I think for some it is very scary because it is a process, but also people don’t necessarily understand the process. “You do not need to have a minyan to say Kaddish as a female — as a woman you are more powerful than 10 men, that’s what I like to tell people,” she says. “But I always say the Kaddish on the bimah with the kids to show that I am still a mourner.
“I’m not making it deep,” she adds. “But I do like to shed some light on life. Because, guess what? Life happens, and I think we can’t shelter children. You gotta shed the light on the subject, and it doesn’t have to be necessarily negative or necessarily sad.”
A safe space to talk about grief
Suson belongs to 95 Facebook groups, and she is the administrator (commonly called an “admin”) of four of them.
“Social media is a tool, and it’s all in how you choose to utilize that tool. I believe in positive social media,” she says.
While Suson found groups for people dealing with suicide loss, spouse loss and child loss, she couldn’t find a support group geared toward grief and loss in a Jewish context.
“I found that shocking, really,” she says. “It’s something that literally everyone goes through, and it’s not like we don’t talk about it, but there is no safe space to talk about it.”
She started thinking about her grandparents and their grief support group, and what she could do to on the first anniversary of her father’s death to honor his memory and his legacy of giving to the community.
In addition to serving as “a safe space to vent, cry, and laugh,” the Facebook Jewish Grief, Loss & Bereavement Support Group is also a forum for people post articles and come to educate or be educated, Suson says.
Within less than a week of its launch, the group had 200 members from across the United States.
“She didn’t realize how quickly the word was going to spread and that people would join the group so quickly,” says Rabbi Suson.
Lisa Heiser-Polin, 41, is a local member of the group. Her father died abruptly when she was 25. More recently, she experienced a late-term miscarriage between the births of her two children.
“It’s hard to process grief with people who aren’t grieving, who expect you to get over it,” she says in a phone interview. There is an expectation that the grieving process is linear, but she says it more like a spiral that reenters one’s life even as time moves on. It happens at predictable times, such as marriages and births, and at surprising times, like when Heiser-Polin opened a box of her late father’s belongings last week during a decluttering spree and burst into tears.
The director of the Early Learning Center at Temple Shalom, Heiser-Polin has lived in the Washington-area since the early 2000s but grew up with Adrienne and Steven in Denver.
“I think Adrienne’s trying to normalize the idea there isn’t a perfect timeline and weird things can trigger you,” Heiser-Polin says. “Online groups offer a little bit of hope to see you can get through it and be OK.”
CORRECTION 2.27.20 2:50 P.M.: This article has been corrected to reflect that Rachel Adisy Suson died from muscular dystrophy, not cancer. The author apologizes for the error.