As I sat on the couch staring at the floorboards in my living room, my chest burning with grief, and my eyes red from crying, I wondered how I was going to tell my children. Their father was in one of our cars in the driveway; dried blood soaked his t-shirt and the gun laid limply in his hand.
My children were excited about the amount of visitors we had in the house. Cartoons blared loudly from the television, stealing their attention from time to time. Policemen wandered the house, asking questions periodically, but mostly avoiding me. My commanding officer, master chief, and a few shipmates spoke about next steps, gathered the rest of our guns, and cleaned my house.
It was a strange feeling. I remember wondering if I should offer people water or tea.
My children were only 2 and 4-years-old. As they grow older, their understanding of their father’s mental health and suicide grows clearer. Well, as clearly as suicide and depression can be to children (or even adults, for that matter).
There’s a scary statistic that uncovers that children whose parent dies by suicide are more likely to die by suicide themselves. In fact, children whose parents die before they reach adulthood are 50% more likely to die within the next forty years than their peers. The big jump in this statistic is blamed on the higher risk of suicide for these children.
Additionally, children who lose their parents to suicide are also at risk for developing psychiatric disorders.
These statistics scare me, but I know that there are things I can do to lessen the risk.
- Open and honest communication.
Keeping an open door for communication works wonders. Children will be confused, scared, and feel all the complex emotions you are after the death of their parent. However, they may be too young to really put what they are felling into words. Keeping an open dialogue can help.
Do not stop any conversations that they start. Usually children want to speak briefly about their parent. This doesn’t imply apathy, but rather reflects the style in which children grieve. For example, do not be surprised if your child starts crying or get angry about the death, and then skips off to play with friends five minutes later. That is very normal and expected.
- Suicide is not a bad word. Don’t be afraid to explain exactly what happened. Call it by name: suicide. Explain what mental illness is the best way you can. Turn to the internet for better explanations. Find books that may be able to help you and your children.
- Ask them.
Do not be afraid to ask your child if he or she is feeling suicidal. Most people do not actually want to die. Rather, they want the pain and suffering they are feeling to go away.
Know the warning signs. If they are withdrawn, overeating, not eating, not wanting to go to school, angry all the time, anxious all the time, sad all the time, or not wanting to play with their friends or do the same activities that they used to…ask them about it. Let them know that you see them.
- Join a Support Group Get outside help. You are only one person. Talk to your healthcare provider and find local resources.
- Speak of your own grief.
Don’t be afraid to cry in front of your children. Let them see you grieving in a healthy manner. This will show them what is normal and that you are hurting as well. Discuss it all.
Explain that it’s normal to feel lost, confused, or guilty. And emphasize that nothing they did caused or was the reason for the suicide. Explain that suicide is an irrational act and so it has not good answers.
The statistics don’t look good, but they do highlight that children need support and sometimes professional help. Don’t be afraid to reach out.