2021 | News

Tommy Raskin remembered for his compassion, intellectual prowess at memorial service

His father, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, says he was ‘literally too good for a world this broken’

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U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, right, gives a eulogy during a memorial service Saturday for his late son Tommy Raskin (pictured at left). Tommy Raskin died Dec. 31 at the age of 25.

Photo by Matthew Bergh

“Gentle,” “revelatory,” “earnest,” “enchanting,” “sincere,” and “pure magic” were just a few of the words used to describe Tommy Raskin during a nearly three-hour memorial service in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.

Family and friends remembered Raskin, the late son of U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), during a drive-in service at RFK Stadium, with attendance limited to invited guests. The service included music and a series of video anecdotes from friends and relatives.

Also included in the video tribute were clips of Tommy Raskin reciting poetry and engaging in a debate with right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza.

Raskin died by suicide on Dec. 31 at the age of 25. In an essay a few days after their son’s death, the family wrote that Raskin had been suffering from depression and that it had “became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable.”

On Saturday, Jamie Raskin spoke about his son’s compassion for others, which started at a young age.

He said Tommy and Tabitha, whose birthdays are close to each other, celebrated together one year when Tommy was turning 6 and Tabitha 4. The original plan was to invite only the boys from Tommy’s class and only the girls from Tabitha’s class, and 24 kids would celebrate in the living room of the family’s house.

But Tommy didn’t want anyone to feel left out and insisted the girls from his class be invited, too, his father said.

“When we were totally shamed by our 5-year-old boy and gave in to the irresistible force of that argument, we had to quickly capitulate to his follow-up argument, which was quickly and enthusiastically endorsed by Tabitha, that we had to invite all the kids in her class, too …,” he said.

Jamie Raskin said that in order to accommodate the 50 kids, he spent an entire afternoon searching for a place to hold the party. He ended up signing a six-page contract to rent out the basement of the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church.

When Tommy got to Montgomery Blair High School, he wanted to help the kids who didn’t have dates to the prom.

“Tommy notices that with all the nervous talk about who’s going with who to the prom, there are some kids that are not part of the conversation,” he said.

Jamie Raskin said that as an alternative, his son rounded up the students without dates for a dress-up dinner party at the family’s house, and they ended up going to the prom as a group.

“We’ve gotten letters over the last few months from parents who’ve told us this is one of the finest things they’ve ever seen a young person do. One mom even said it was a turning point in the life of her son,” he said.

Tommy’s parents and other family members also spoke about their son’s knack for debating.

His mother, Sarah Bloom Raskin, recalled a time the two were driving from their home in Takoma Park to Wellfleet, Mass., shortly after he had graduated from Amherst College. He noticed there was a “troubling footnote” in an academic article written by professor Walter Block at Loyola University New Orleans. Tommy Raskin felt that Block had drawn an incorrect distinction between animal rights and human rights.

Raskin decided as they were leaving Takoma Park that he wanted to debate Block, his mother said.

“I warned Tommy that tenured professors of philosophy, or any subject for that matter, would not be prioritizing requests for debates from newly graduated college seniors,” she said.

Sarah Bloom Raskin speaks at her son’s memorial service on Saturday. Photo by Matthew Bergh.

By the time they had reached a toll plaza in Delaware, Raskin had sent the professor an email requesting a debate, Sarah Raskin said.

“To my complete amazement, we are through the next toll in Delaware and Professor Block has replied,” she said.

Block agreed to the debate, but Raskin had to submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal, she said. After she explained the idea to her son, he replied “OK,” she said.

By the time they reached the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River in New York City, Raskin had submitted the article to the journal and gotten Block to agree to the debate if the logistics could be arranged, Sarah Raskin said.

“By the time we have passed Providence, Rhode Island, there is a moderator, an online forum, a debate date and a submission in a peer-reviewed journal. This maybe is less than eight hours from the start of the journey and the effort,” she said.

Those who left video tributes said Raskin was a master at the game Boggle, and had an extraordinary vocabulary, but still lived his life with humility.

“[He] knew more than anyone else in a room, but he never weaponized it …,” one of his teachers said in the video.

One friend, Sophie Clark, said in the video that she admired Raskin’s ability to listen.

“He wasn’t listening to hear what he wanted to hear,” she said.

Another friend, Delia Trimble, said “the level of kindness and grace and love and interest that he had never wavered.”

Following Raskin’s death, his family launched The Tommy Raskin Memorial Fund for People and Animals through the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Hannah Raskin, his sister, said during the service on Saturday that the fund has grown to more than $1 million since its launch in January.

Additionally, Hannah Raskin said the organization is setting aside a $15,000 grant for the animal rights nonprofit Mercy for Animals, and a $15,000 grant to Oxfam — a group of 20 charities committed to fighting poverty.

“Whenever I thought about Tommy, I felt better about the world, knowing that he was in it. That he had the passion, devotion and influence to change things,” she said.

Jamie Raskin said on Saturday that his son “never lost his optimism and his radiant love of other people,” but injustice in the world “haunted him and gnawed away at him.”

“He internalized the pain of the world. He was literally too good for a world this broken,” he said.

The congressman said the months since his son’s death have been painful, but he is trying to find the right way to preserve his memory.

“I have lost my son. I have lost something so fundamental, so elemental in my life. I am not sure at times that I even recognize the world,” he said, becoming emotional.

“A little part of each of us died with him that day. … But if part of us died with Tommy, a bigger part and a far more important part of Tommy lives on with each of us.”

Tommy Raskin is survived by his sisters, Hannah and Tabitha; parents Jamie and Sarah Bloom Raskin; grandparents Arlene Bloom and Lynn Raskin; and many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

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Warning sides of suicide:
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings

If someone exhibits warning signs of suicide:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK) or Montgomery County 24 Hour Crisis Center at 240-777-4000
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from medical or mental health professionals

Source: Reportingonsuicide.org; Montgomery County

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com