We Are Only Human

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Mark Madoff: What about the children?

Lost in the clamor is the impact on Mark Madoff's two children.

The suicide of Mark Madoff made news because he is the son of convicted Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff. Lost in the clamor is the impact on Mark Madoff's two children. Over seven to twelve thousand children lose parents to suicide in the United States every year. It was reported in almost prurient detail that Mark Madoff hung himself by a dog leash fully clothed while in the back room his two-year-old son was asleep. We know when his young son awoke that his life will never be the same as he and his sister struggle to make sense of a confusing loss. Children after a parent's suicide are left wondering "Why, Why, Why did you do it?" and they are left growing up trying to cope with the social stigma.

Children are different and will have their own timetable of grief.  Families will look for guidance about how to provide support. Young children under three need hugs and physical closeness as they don't understand the meaning or permanence of death. They may be upset that people they love are crying. They can't ask questions to understand more. They are too young to cognitively understand. Yet they understand the tragic music but not the words.  Children between three to six years old may worry it's their fault and be frightened of losing the other parent. They need reassurance that they will be cared for.

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Children need permission to ask questions and to have reasonably honest and direct communication. Secrecy and stonewalling can be confusing to children.  Professor Albert Cain advises a nuanced approach for children of suicide where he makes a distinction between "the telling and the knowing." Right after the death of their parent, children may be more preoccupied about who will walk them to school and if their father is coming back. They may only be able to take in partial facts. Sometimes children may struggle to understand the details or the explanation. They may feel personally rejected and wonder if they were good enough their parent might have persevered. In many cases it is helpful to help explain the link between mental illness and suicide as a way to mitigate the blame a child may feel. Yet it is still hard for the child to understand how a parent can feel expendable.

My mother killed herself when I was four years old. I spent countless hours growing up finding comfort by reading stories over and over again such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Harriet the Spy, and Little Women. Children want to believe, to believe parents are there to protect them, to read them bed time stories, to watch them go to their first day of school, to be there as they may make mistakes and get up and try again.

Whenever I hear about a parent who has died by suicide I hold the family in my heart. I pray they find strength and a way to provide comfort to each other. I can't sugarcoat the loss and sense of abandonment even if I can appreciate that a parent was suffering and may have underestimated or overlooked the impact on their children. Children will retell over and over again trying to make sense of what happened in a premature separation - may we provide kindness and room for them to absorb the absence and have the courage to love again.  

 

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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