What do I tell the kids?
What an awful refrain. It stayed in my head for the days, weeks, months that followed my husband’s suicide. It took me two weeks to finally tell my oldest (then 4-years-old) that his father had died. The word caught in my throat. I couldn’t cough it out. I couldn’t tell him he’d never see his beloved father again. Every time I thought about it, I teared up, succumbing to full body sobbing whenever I was alone.
What do I tell the kids?
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine not just telling them that their father had died, but that their father had CHOSEN to die. How will they see their dad after that? How do I explain the ugliness of suicide?
I had a million questions. Probably the same questions that every mother (and father) will pose to themselves after a suicide.
I had my own questions: Why did you do it? Why did you leave me? How could I not prevent this? This is my fault, isn’t it? Why? Why? Why?
What do I tell the kids?
I think the first step for me was just saying that he was dead. I explained what death was. It’s such an abstract thought for younger children. Little kids don’t have a firm grasp on what death really is until about 6-years-old. Most young children will constantly ask, “When is he coming back?” and “When is he coming back?” and “But he’s only gone for ten years, right? Then he’ll be back?” and “I think I want Daddy to come back soon.” and “Why don’t we just visit Daddy?” and “Well, we can die, too, and then come back when we’re done visiting.”
Once those questions were gone, once my child knew that death was forever, that there was no seeing him again, then we could take another step forward. After he had exhausted the death questions, he began asking a familiar one: why?
Why? Why? Why? And: How? How? How?
Never tell your child that his parent was sick and leave it at that. In their mind, sickness means a cold, the flu, or a tummy ache. There is nothing worse than that. And so he’ll be terrified if a loved one gets sick, especially you. If you choose sickness, you MUST explain mental health.
I explained it in this light:
Some people get really sick. More than a tummy ache, more than a fever. They get sick with something awful, like cancer. You can see the sickness. They look awful, they look sick. You know they’re struggling. You know they are trying really hard to save their own lives. You may have never seen someone like that, but it’s way, way, way worse than the small little bits of being sick that you know.
They go to the doctor. A lot. They usually take medicine to help them, but not always. Some people get better. Some people die. It’s such an awful thing, but they do. They fight it, though. And they’re brave and wonderful people.
You’re dad was sick. He was sick somewhere you can’t see. In his brain. His brain told him he was very sad. That’s called depression. It’s not sad like when you’re brother steals your toys. Or when a friend calls you a bad name. Or when you aren’t chosen to play with someone. It’s the kind of sad that makes you not want to do anything. You don’t want to play. You don’t want to eat sometimes. You don’t even want cookies! (To which he replied: What??? No cookies??) Nope. You’re so sad you don’t want to play with your very best of friends. It’s like being sick. Do you want to play with a tummy ache? Nope. Do you feel like lots of company when your skin feels achy? Nope.
It’s very real. You can’t see it, but it’s very real.
My son asked how you can tell who has that kind of brain sickness.
What hard questions.
I told him, Some people hide it very, very well. You can’t tell at all. Some of that is because we make them feel ashamed that they have brain sickness. Or if someone tells us they’re depressed or anxious (which means very worried about everything, even little things some people might find silly), we tell them that they’re silly. We don’t take it seriously. Imagine if you’re throwing up but your friend calls you a faker. Or that you need to come out and play a trampoline, it’ll make you feel better? You wouldn’t want to tell him again, would you? You’d just make sure not to be around him.
Sometimes, though, you can tell. Sometimes they look sad. Or angry all the time. Or worried. Or they do things they don’t normally do: they stop hanging out with you, they stop wanting to do the fun things they used to want to do, they stop eating as much as they used to. Sometimes they even tell you. You just always have to listen. And, the most important thing, if you’re wondering and worried that someone has that brain sickness. Ask them. They’ll think that you care and they might be really wanting to tell someone. Anyone.
And when they tell you. Tell everyone! Tell grown ups you trust. Tell their family! Tell their friends! Give them hugs. Give them food. Tell them you care. All the time.
My son asked if he would ever get sickness in his own brain. He’s at a higher risk, because of his family history. So I told him yes. And I told him the truth: in fact, you’re at a higher risk of developing depression.
It’s a pretty grave thing to explain to a child, but I need to tell him that. Young children have become depressed. Young children have completed suicide. He needs to know.
I told him that it’s good to know, though. It’s good to know that it’s something to look out for. Maybe he’ll never have to worry about it, but if he EVER feels depressed or anxious or just plain off, he can come to me and tell me. He can let me know he feels sad all the time. Or angry all the time. Or anxious or anything else. There are doctors that can help. Counselors. Programs. Support groups. Medication. Exercise, sleep, and nutrition plays a huge role. Support from friends and family is also important.
And I told him, should you ever feel like you want to die or hurt yourself, LET ME KNOW. That is a symptom, a side effect, a part of depression. That is not something shameful or something to cover up and hide. Not everyone who is depressed will feel suicidal, but some will.
I explained all of this starting at 6-years-old. My youngest is now 6 and has had similar talks. These are talks we have periodically. We revisit them. I want to remove the stigma. I want to remove the fear, the shame, the aversion of talking about this from them. I don’t want them to think less of their father and they don’t. They know he was an amazing man. They know he battled depression. They know he had his inner demons. They know that doesn’t take away from who he was as a person, any more than having the flu or pneumonia or a car accident would have taken away from who he was.
They also know that he was a man who fell victim to our society’s lack of understanding of these diseases, my lack of understanding. They know that he refused medication half the time and never wanted to go to counseling, because he didn’t think he needed it; it’s a common statement from most people, especially men because of the stigma surround mental health illnesses.
As our children grow older, the talks will get deeper, the statements more in-depth. My children will have the tools necessary to combat anything they may encounter in life. These are hard talks and it’s like navigating through mud. It’s difficult, unclear, and I’m always tripping over things I can’t see, but we’re moving through it.