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Talking With Kids About Suicide

How to talk with children about the unspeakable

I knew I was in trouble the day my son asked: “Mommy, how are pandas built?”

Driving him to preschool, trying so hard to focus on what he was asking, I realized this was the moment just before things were going to change. Forever.

All of a sudden, or so it seemed to me, my toddler understood that there was life, and a time before life. I braced myself for what would inevitably come next.

When one of the tadpoles at his preschool died, the school sent home this note, sharing how they would explain the tadpole’s death if children asked:

“Ram was very sick, and he was so sick his body wasn't able to keep working. When his body stopped working, he stopped being alive. This is something you don't have to worry about for a long, long time as you and your family are healthy and there to take care of each other. If they ask where Ram is, we will say he isn't in his body anymore because it stopped working and we don't know where he is, but that he is not sick anymore.”

My son named his frog stuffed animal Ram, for the tadpole who had died.

This is where we are, 28 years after my dad died and just over 3 ½ years after I named my son in his memory. Conventional wisdom in the psychology world says that it's okay to talk with kids about death when they start talking with you about death. They're conscious of it and, as a part of life, death should not be denied.

But how do you talk with kids about death when the death you want to talk about is a suicide?

This is the question I'm asking myself this year as I mark another anniversary of my dad’s death by suicide and as my son comes into his consciousness of life and death. I've found myself with words on the tip of my tongue and held them in, quite a few times. Not just because he's not ready (though I honestly think he's not). But, it's more because I'm not ready.

I know from my own experience of grieving my father’s death that telling the truth about death is important. But what facts to share? I am asking not just for now, when my son is not even school-age, but for later when he has had more life experience to put facts into context.

First, I have to become comfortable with saying a few basic things to my child: that my father died, and that he died when I was a child, so that’s why my son has never met him. Grounding this idea of “my father,” a person who has been gone from my own life for so many years, in the concrete sense of reality a child can understand feels like a monumental task in itself. I’ll share what pictures I have and memories of things that we did together. I’ll have to practice saying things briefly, not adding a lot of detail in my nervousness. And I’ll work to strike a balance between talking about my father as a person who died and talking about my father as a person who lived.

I’ll also need to be careful about my son’s fear that I might die. A parent is such a crucial figure in the life of a child; talking with a child about a parent dying puts out into the open that the unthinkable could happen. When he’s older, I’ll be able to share my own sadness with him about losing a parent, but while he’s little, I’ll focus on trying not to frighten him.

Most importantly, I’ll need to be ready to answer my son’s questions. In many ways, being ready to talk about death isn’t so much knowing what to say but being prepared to listen, to meet questions with openness.

As I think about all of these things I might say, I have to acknowledge that lot of what I might say is about death in general. But at some point, it won’t just be important to say that my father died, but that he died by suicide.

At that point, I’ll turn to these thoughtful words by psychologist Polly Dunn, who writes: “You’d rather have your children know that you are a person that they can talk to about tragedies, rather than a person who hides from them.”

And, I’ll be guided by these words about why suicide happens, from SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education):

“Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person’s brain can get very sick – the sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a person’s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so sometimes they can’t think clearly. Some people can’t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don’t understand that they don’t have to feel that way, that they can get help.”

What’s instructive about thinking about talking to children about death, and about suicide deaths in particular, is that so much of what I might tell my child is probably what I should keep in mind when talking with adults, too.

  • Keep it simple, factual, and focused
  • Remember that talking about death is frightening
  • Keep an open mind to questions
  • Explain mental illness as you would physical illness, without blame or judgment

This week, in addition to marking the anniversary of my father’s death, also marks the second anniversary of Robin Williams’ death by suicide. (For two great pieces about the impact of Williams' death on the suicide prevention movement, click here and here.) Williams, in addition to being a phenomenally talented and famous actor, was a father. For those who began realizing suicide's impact because of Williams’ death, and for all who are grieving losses, may you find comfort at this time.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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