Monday, May 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Jonathan A. Cohen, 1940-2007

I learned on Friday that my dear friend and therapist Jonathan Cohen died on May 5. He was 66 years old.

Those are the facts. Beneath the facts are more facts, and a swirling torment of emotions and questions. Jon was a beautiful, brilliant man: warm, funny, insightful, caring, extraordinarily intelligent, fiercely opinionated, but questioning of everything, in others and the world.
He was a very accomplished professional psychiatrist, politically astute and active, a talented and enamored sailor,a gifted writer, an intellectual of tremendous caliber, a generous and fun person who sank his teeth deeply into life. He was a beloved father of two beautiful, smart, healthy, worldly, caring children now grown into adults, and a challenging companion to a gorgeous galaxy of a woman. He had loads of friends whom he loved and who thought the world of him.

He hated lies, moral cowardice, easy answers. He wouldn't settle for any of them, at least that appeared the case to me. I had long sought a therapist I could work with who wouldn't let me get away with my shit, who was at least as smart as me (in the way I'm smart), who knew how to play the game and could beat me at it. Jon was so far beyond me in so many of these areas he was able truly to support me in finding my path. We didn't always get along in therapy. I didn't always agree with him, and he occasionally really pissed me off. But I could tell him that, and he would hear me, and work to change the way he approached our work together. So often I left his office more hopeful, able to continue a few days longer. He saved my life, quite literally, on more than one occasion.

I wish I could have returned the favor. Even in our friendship, which grew around and out of our professional relationship, Jon did almost all the listening and questioning. I was very bad at this. When an amazing man, full of energy, thoughtfulness, deep and diverse life experience wants to hear what I have to say (this doesn't happen that often) it's hard for me to shut up. I wish I had done so more. I wish I had made more space for him to speak about his demons, fears, moral questioning, depression, suffering.

Jonathan's suffering got the better of him last week, and this beautiful man who gave me so much, who worked so hard to heal others, took his own life. I was shocked but strangely not surprised. I was aware that he and his partner, another dear friend of mine, had separated, and that some choices of Jon's--inconsistent, from my perspective, with his strong moral compass--were involved in that separation. I had not known of his depression, although he had spoken a bit with me of his childhood and his relationship with his father. What I did know, though, was that Jon was a person of character--whatever his mistakes or failings--of decisiveness and courage. He was the kind of person capable of making such a difficult, final choice and carrying it out.

His reasons are his own. I may never fully understand them. Yesterday, at the gathering of remembrance his partner and children organized for him in the foothills of Boulder, I gained further insights into his mental state before he killed himself. He had been struggling with depression for a long time. He was unhappy in his new home in Washington state. He had never fully recovered from the trauma and injuries of his childhood. And he may not have believed or known when he died that he had been forgiven for the hurtful choices he had made.

I wonder too to what extent the political situation in the world may have influenced his decisions. Jon had a very strong moral political compass and could not abide anything he considered unjust, inhumane, dishonest. He could not excuse such behavior. As head psychiatrist on Paris Island during the Vietnam war, he tried to help U.S. servicemen come to grips with the crimes and atrocities they committed, as well as the horror they'd witnessed and grief they'd endured, to become as mentally strong, healthy, and honest as a human beings so damaged could become. His son yesterday referenced Jon's testimony in Congress against the Marines, and Mark and I wondered if Jon wasn't one of the "winter soldiers" who did so much to bring to light the evil of that "police action" and war in general.

Jon and I first met through his involvement in the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, initially in the work to end economic sanctions against Iraq. I remember like it was yesterday he and his partner, sitting on a couch in the old American Friends Service Committee offices. I remember thinking, "my God, who is this beautiful, strong, stylish couple here to join in our struggle?" We all three fell in love with each other during that meeting, and our friendships grew in earnest shortly afterwards.

Later, Jon served as our volunteer on-call psychiatrist when CCMEP sent delegations to Palestine, and some found themselves literally under fire during Israel's massive invasion of the West Bank in 2002. I'll never forget how he was there to speak with Nancy Stohlman, as bombs were falling around her, and help her decide whether to be evacuated or remain with the people. Most psychiastrists, I think, would have thought Nancy--then a young single mother--crazy for even having gone to Palestine. They would have insisted she get out of there as soon as possible. Not Jon. Jon understood why she was there, and, more than that, he understood the terrible impact her leaving might have on her psyche, the damage such guilt could inflict. He encouraged her to stay, bombs and all. He understood that survivor guilt can be unbearable, and helps no one.

I don't know that Jon believed in the spirit world, but I do, and I pray his spirit can yet provide solace and wisdom to his children. They now seem haunted by what they didn't see, what they didn't do to help him. Carrying the grief of such loss, a good dad who died too young, is more than enough; I pray they can be freed of survivor guilt, and live their lives with all the passionate engagement their father did, without his suffering.

There are lessons in this for them, and for all of us. At the risk of simplifying a tragedy of unspeakable pain, imposing meaning or pattern that isn't there because the human mind so needs them, the immediate lessons for me are of compassion, forgiveness, honesty and self-healing. I want the sense of priority and perspective I felt in the immediate aftermath of learning of his death to be what stays with me. In the past six months I too have had suicidal thoughts, on a number of occasions. I have never gotten to the point Jon did, and for that I have the love and compassion of my immediate circle to thank. I want to heal myself enough that I can provide that compassion and understanding to others. I'm not there yet, but that is my path.

At the time of his death I was extremely angry with, and felt somewhat betrayed, by Jon. All of that is still true, but it is so far from the sum total of my relationship with him. I wish I could have spoken with him, met with him, heard his reasoning, his side of the story, so I could have forgiven him while he was alive, and he could have known that he was still loved and appreciated, that his demons were understood. I assumed there would be time--time to heal, to resolve old wounds, to figure things out. And I counted on Jonathan's seemingly mountainous strength to withstand what plagued his heart.

I am not at all convinced that suicide is always a bad choice, always something to be prevented. I still don't know what to think of Jon's choice. But it is hard to see someone of such gifts, such extraordinary heart and mind and spirit, dissolve into his own grief such that it seems the best choice for him.

I do not know how to finish this, except to stop. Perhaps, sometimes, that is the only ending one can write.