Talking to Kids about Suicide

Talking to Kids about Suicide

I’ve been struggling with some fairly heavy emotions recently as a result of some youth suicides that have hit close to home. First, I learned of a 12-year-old girl at our local elementary school who took her life because of ongoing bullying. Days later, I read about a young boy of the same age who shot himself at a Boy Scout summer camp. Immediately, I was struck with grief and disbelief that children so young (and younger) even know what suicide is. How could they feel compelled to make this decision and have the capacity to follow through with it? It feels easier to digest that a grown man, like my 64-year-old father, could pursue suicide after living a full life and experiencing most of what it had to offer. But, to think that a child saw this as their only option is just disheartening – and frankly – shocking.

The reason this has hit me so hard is because I am seven months pregnant with our first child – a girl. In addition to the overwhelming happiness I feel, I am juggling a lot of worry and anxiety over how the “S” word will be addressed in our home in the years to come. In the immediate wake of reading these stories, I started to question my being so proactive about suicide awareness and putting my story out there to be “Googled” by anyone. Would it give her any “ideas?” Many survivors have the ability to decide if, how and when they want to share their stories. But, mine is out there for the world to find, as are the circumstances surrounding my dad’s death, thanks to the news articles about it. The ability to just tell my daughter it was a heart attack isn’t really an option for me. I started to worry about the impact this could have on her and thought about just shutting down everything I’ve been doing. Would she feel ashamed and become depressed when finding out? Would she ever be bullied about it if word got out? How will I explain this to her? And, is there anything I can do to prevent her from being bullied? What if I pick out the wrong colors for her room or style of clothes? I panicked. Even though she isn’t here yet, I feel like I am already trying to create this bubble of happiness and safety for her and protect her from the troublesome things in this world, like suicide and stories of it. Deep down, this is because I worry I could never stomach another loss this traumatic in my life and try to guard myself against it in any way possible. I never thought my dad could/would do this, either…

These feelings were so bothersome to me that I sought out the expertise of those who have dealt with children and suicide – primarily those who help children cope after they lose someone close. I asked a lot of pointed questions – “Does hearing about suicide give them ideas or fantasies?” “Do they become depressed when they hear/talk about it?” “How am I supposed to approach this topic as a parent?”

I experienced some relief in hearing their responses. For one, I learned that being so proactive could be used to my advantage and I could be a role model. While I hope this discussion doesn’t come up for another decade, I am demonstrating that I faced a truly awful tragedy in my life and that instead of shutting down or hiding behind it, I am turning it into a positive and helping others. I am showing that you can find the light at the end of a tunnel and work through it. I am showing her that I am taking a stand for a cause that needs strong voices and advocates and providing resources where there are few. Hopefully, I am also showing her that we can have an open dialogue about this and any topic that arises in her life. I now know how to be more vigilant in watching for cues that she’s not acting like herself and can help to intervene, if needed…

Another suggestion I received for talking to kids about suicide is to actually pull up my searchable content one day for her so that she doesn’t find it herself and to talk her through it. This way, the information will come from a truthful, trusted resource and I can be there to answer questions.

A few other things I learned:

  • It was rare that these experts saw mentally-stable children fanaticize about death or suicide after talking about it or learning of a loved one’s passing, nor did they try to hurt themselves. Adolescents might be more susceptible. But, talking about it doesn’t implant ideas. By talking about it with children proactively, they know they can trust you and come to you with their concerns. It might remain mysterious if they are left to wonder or look into it on their own.
  • Unlike adults, young kids don’t have the stigma associated with suicide, so it doesn’t feel as shocking to them. At age 5, 6 or 7, they seem less concerned about the method of death and more interested in knowing if the loved one was ever going to come back, or if they were in heaven.
  • With really young kids, the experts frame up the death as dying from a sickness in the brain. With older kids, they explain that their loved one died on purpose. By around 8 or 9-years old, kids can begin to understand suicide.
  • Kids do Google novel things, so if your family’s suicide story is a public one, showing them the search results could be a part of your discussion, if that feels appropriate.
  • This is a matter of personal preference, but this conversation could begin whenever the child asks why so and so isn’t around anymore, or why they don’t have a grandma/grandpa, etc. versus bringing it up proactively one day. The discussion can then be tailored to the age and developmental appropriateness of the child. Not everything has to come out at once if the child is really young. If they ask again in later years, more information could be shared. For example, if a six-year-old asks what happened to uncle so-and-so, you could say that he died from a sickness in his brain and then answer the innocent questions that follow (like, he isn’t coming back, unfortunately). If the child is older and asks, you could expand to how he died on purpose from this sickness and answer those follow up questions with more details.
  • Maintaining this open line of communication and being clued in to the child’s life is important if they have learned of a bullying-related suicide or are a victim of bullying themselves. I have heard that some schools are using the phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” now, which I don’t necessarily agree with. But, letting children know they can talk to you about anything and ask questions and explore options for help with you might help to bring them more comfort.
  • It’s always an option to enlist the help of a third party expert to help with this discussion and navigate the child’s questions and concerns.

The idea of even having to talk to kids about suicide is uncomfortable and bothersome. I am upset that my dad’s actions have put me in a position to have to talk with my child about this one day and sometimes wonder if he ever thought about that. I am guessing not. I’m somewhat relieved that I am already preparing for it with a practiced approach. One of the experts I spoke with said that discussing sex and death are the two topics parents dread most, but the more open and trusted you can become about them, the better. Have you had a conversation with any young people in your life about the loss of a loved one to suicide? What worked and what did they struggle with?

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Image from New York Daily News.

Comments

  1. Susie says

    When my father committed suicide my children were 10 and 7. My first instinct was to lie to them about how he died, but after some brief internet research I decided to be honest. Everything I could find online suggested that lying to a child only served to protect them right now…but will devastate them in the future. It further explained that a child who is told a loved one died from say, a heart attack, will certainly find out the truth later in life and will actually re-mourn the loss.

    Telling my children that their Bapa had taken his own life was, without question, the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. I was further traumatized when my 7 year old daughter asked, while in the JC Penney dressing room trying on clothes for the funeral, how he did it. I was literally stopped in my tracks. I feared so many things with that question…was she old enough to understand? Would the image of her grandpa shooting himself cause her nightmares? Will that knowledge change how she remembers him? I didn’t have time to research all these concerns, she was staring at me with those big brown eyes, waiting for an answer. So I winged it…I asked her if she was sure she wanted to know that because once she knows, she can’t ever un-know it…without skipping a beat she shook her head yes and said she is sure. So I told her…he did it with a gun. And her response was a slight nod of her head accompanied by “That’s what I thought.” She’s never brought it up again.

    I think as parents, as adults, we attach so much of our own perspective to our concerns for our children, worry so much about if and how they can cope…children are pretty simple…tell them the truth and impress upon them that you will always be willing to answer their questions and talk to them and most children will do fine. But they have to know it is okay to ask.

    • Becky says

      Hi Susie – I love that you shared this with me. I have been stressing about it so much. It still amazes me that children so young can even comprehend something like this or think to ask detailed questions. Thinking back to when I was that age, I feel like I was so naiive and living in a more rosy world, but maybe I just don’t remember. Hearing how other children have reacted is helpful as I brace myself for this conversation one day.

  2. Cindy says

    My husband took his life in March of 2012. I have four boys Patrick at the time 19, Nicholas 15, Cole 9 and Brody 3. This is and has been the most difficult thing in my life. I needed to be strong for them when I was hurting so bad. I put them all in counseling right away and my son Cole is the only one still going. His age was the worst and I fear someday he will follow cause he is the one most hurt why his dad left him and ask to be with him all the time. I still just take it day by day cause I don’t think anybody has an answer of how we need to move pass it. Any suggestion I am open to.

    • Becky says

      Hi Cindy – I’m so sorry that you have had this added difficulty. I keep thinking to myself that our loved ones thought they were doing us a favor or that the problems would end with their depature, but they really only begin. I continue to be saddened by this. The LOSS program newsletter has a lot of helpful tips and information on how to broach this with children. Each month, they have a section called “The Children’s Corner,” which addresses all facets of this journey for youth. Parents and also experts/counselors offer their thoughts and experiences. I find it to be extremely helpful. You can sign up to receive the newsletter online, even if you don’t partipate in their services. http://www.catholiccharities.net/GetHelp/OurServices/Counseling/Loss/ContactUs.aspx

Trackbacks

  1. […] geographic location. Doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, police officers, military personnel, teachers, school-aged kids and housewives complete suicide. It happens in the house next door and has likely touched someone […]

  2. […] When we arrived at the church, the emotions continued. A longtime church member was on hand to assist the pastor with the baptism. As I was showing off my baby to family for the first time, she whispered in my ear, “your dad would have been so proud” and I pretty much lost it. Of course she meant well, but it was ill-timed. It didn’t help that being at church reminded me of him in general. He was so full of faith and instilled weekly attendance in us from day one. He was even president of the church council and close friends with the former pastor. It only got worse from there as “Amazing Grace” was one of the songs sung during the service… There I sat in the front row, sobbing as if it were a funeral. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, but the cemetery visit, coupled with the saddish song and seating arrangement in the front row with the same people who were seated front row at his burial was very eerie. I was thankful to have my back to all the other attendees but so embarrassed at how things unfolded. At the end of the service, the same woman said, “I could see that was really hard on you.” I later learned she also made a comment to my aunt (his sister). Part of me felt like the woman experienced some sort of satisfaction in all of this – maybe to be able to share with others about the “drama” this suicide has caused our family? Or, maybe she did actually care and feel some sort of empathy towards us. Who knows? In any case, I just wish she hadn’t said anything. This is all part of the halo effect of suicide on family that can extend many years later. I dread the moments I actually have to explain to my daughter why mommy is upset or why she doesn’t have a grandpa on that side. But, hopefully that’s a ways off – and I do have plans in place for how we will address that. […]

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