After we heard the cast of Hamilton sing, “Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide,” for the millionth time, my daughter, who’s 6, said, “Mama, what’s suicide?” I panicked and changed the subject.
With adults, I speak openly of depression and having lost family members to suicide. I walk annually to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. But since my son started reading, I’ve hidden my suicide prevention shirts. It’s not a secret; I just didn’t know how to talk to my kids about it.
When I was 11, my mom and I found my father unconscious on the shower floor, water pouring over him. I didn’t recognize it as a suicide attempt, just an emergency. Days later, Dad explained his bandaged neck and wrists by saying he was sick but getting better. He said we must never tell anyone, as it could hurt his career. He was fine, he said. We all were.
I was a good student, but after this I forgot my homework, every day. My teacher sent a notebook home for my mom to sign, and daily, Mom forgot. We had no idea why. We were in crisis believing we were fine.
We never spoke of mental illness or suicide, though my dad would attempt suicide six more times over 30 years. We lied to lifelong friends and neighbors. From the outside we seemed fine. We believed we were — we didn’t know better.
We maintained our silence until I was in my 30s, and a depressive breakdown propelled me into therapy and onto medication. For the first time, I recognized the dysfunction of my family. I began talking and reaching out, which angered my dad, who said it was his business, not mine. In retrospect, I recognize his deep shame.
Dad died by suicide three months before the birth of my first child, my son, who’s 8. My kids, who now understand death means gone for good, have begun asking ages of loved ones at death, and how they died. Last month they asked about my dad. I said, “He was very sick.” My daughter nodded knowingly.
“No,” I said, “just sick.”
My kids are astute, and they asked my mom, who lives with us. She said the same thing: He was sick.
I realized it’s time to deal with it. When I started talking about telling my kids, one friend strongly cautioned waiting until they’re adults, for fear of putting the idea into their heads. My mom said, “You won’t tell them the truth, will you?”
I worried I was being self-serving, because I felt damaged by the secrets with which I was raised. Are they too young? Would I be putting them at risk by telling them? If it’s okay to tell them, is there a “right” way to do so? Given my family history — my dad, my uncle and my cousin all died by suicide — I didn’t want to increase my children’s risk.
I’ve got friends in the mental health community, so I asked them for advice.
Every expert I spoke with said not only is it acceptable to tell them, but it’s important to do so. Talking about suicide doesn’t put the idea into anyone’s head. In fact, talking lowers the risk.
“Suicide is a health outcome,” Christine Moutier, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s chief medical officer, explained to me. “Think of it like heart disease. People have varying degrees of genetic risk that predispose them for heart disease. If you had five family members who’d died of heart attacks, you’d do everything you could to keep healthy.”
Why honesty matters
“Children can absolutely handle this kind of news,” said Dahlia Topolosky, a psychologist at Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington, adding, “It’s critical they understand mental illness so they can reach out if they’re experiencing anything.”
I’m an anxious person, and I suffer from depression, but I’ve never talked about either with my kids or put words to my feelings. Kids are observant, and I see them reacting to my moods. In fact, they probably recognize that we’ve been evasive regarding my dad.
Kevin Carter, clinical director at the Center for Grieving Children, explains: “Children will create their own scenarios, often blaming themselves for the death of a loved one. Kids may think, ‘What did I do to cause this?’ They try to figure out their role.”
My dad died before my kids were born, so I can’t imagine my kids would blame themselves, but I don’t know what they’re thinking. Clearly, it’s important to be honest. But how to begin?
Finding the words
Topolosky advised that I ask my kids how they believe my dad died. “Kids are imagining things anyway,” she said. I can use simple words like “sad” and “sick.” I might even say he “died of an illness called depression.” Eventually, I could explain, “Sometimes depression leads to a person thinking the world would be better if they weren’t in it.”
But, she stressed, it’s vital to help my kids understand that my dad didn’t just one day decide to harm himself. They need to know depression can make people believe they’ll never get better. And I need to convey that we face hard things together; we don’t hide from them.
Elana Premack Sandler, a licensed clinical social worker, lost her father to suicide when she was 8. “In some ways, death by suicide can be talked about in the same ways that other deaths are discussed,” Sandler said. “Language like, ‘Something very sad happened’ or ‘I have something that I need to tell you that’s really hard’ offers a frame that doesn’t sensationalize the death.” She stresses the child’s age is not as critical as the use of age-appropriate language. (The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides a booklet with age-specific language for telling kids and answering some of their questions after a suicide loss.)
Alison Bomba, a psychologist who treats children, adolescents and young adults, underlined the importance of my kids knowing that help is always available. She suggested language like, “My dad’s brain was sick, and he didn’t go to the doctor for help.” She added that kids will stop hearing and processing after 10 seconds, so I should give them information in small bits and let them process, following up a couple days later.
Based on the advice I got about using age-appropriate language, I feel I can use the same words and give the same information to both my kids. If I talked to them separately, it’d seem like a bigger deal, and they’d share information anyway. My daughter, though younger, has an easier time describing emotions than my son, and I believe she’ll be the one to ask questions. I plan to talk openly and honestly at their level, answering questions as they ask.
Thinking about these conversations scares me. I’ve worked through my anger and feelings of abandonment, but I’m afraid I’ll cry, as I still sometimes do when talking about my dad, particularly when I think about him as the grandpa my kids never got to meet. Moutier suggested scripting out a conversation to make myself less nervous and more prepared. I think, once I’ve opened up the conversation, I’ll feel relieved.
For me, getting and staying healthy has meant writing and speaking frankly and often about mental illness and suicide. I started healing when I recognized my own depression and began talking openly about how my dad’s mental illness affected me. It’s time to break my silence with my kids and open our home environment by talking about mental health and the importance of asking for help when we need it.
There are many great resources available to help talk to kids, recognize warning signs, and get help living with others with mental illness. Here are a handful:
NAMI Family-to-Family, a free, 12-session educational program for family, significant others and friends of people living with mental illness
“My Uncle Keith Died,” by a book to describe suicide loss to kids
Lisa Jordan is a freelance writer, sandwich parent, wife and suicide prevention activist who blogs at lemongloria.blogspot.com. She’s working on a memoir about motherhood, love and mental illness.
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