Monday, March 20, 2017

Explaining Suicide to A Child

[Reviewed and updated October 13, 2017]

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.  ~ Albert Einstein

A reader writes: My husband committed suicide six weeks ago. He left behind our nine-year-old son and myself. I know exactly why he killed himself. He had suffered years of physical pain, had emotional problems, depression, manic depression and other problems, some of which were attributed to the fact he had no male role model in his youth. His biological father left when he was five. His stepfather showed him no love or support whatsoever and his mother suffered from depression. He had not worked in many years and felt useless. He felt that his manhood was gone and thought the only way out was to overdose. He said in his suicide note that his race was done. He had become very difficult to live with.

We became the brunt of his pain at times. Even my own son has said he was glad his dad died because he could be so brutal. He also said that his dad was the best guy in the world and he wished he were here. His dad showed deep love for his son as well. He loved him more than anything.

Our son does not know that his father killed himself. He just knows that his dad is dead from pain. I worry about the problems he may have from this in the future. At what point in his life should suicide be explained to him? So far, he is very resilient. He seems to be more at peace, but at the same time, wanting to be with his friends all the time and playing video games. He has become more social.

I am ok, but the loneliness is setting in. I am 44 and wasn't ready to be single for the rest of my life at such a young age. Logan very much wants another father. I want another partner down the road, but don't know if I can cross over to that.

How do I make sure my son will be ok?


My response: I'm so very sorry to learn of this tragic loss in your family; please accept my deepest sympathy. I cannot imagine what this must have done to your world and to your life.

As I'm sure you know, suicide leaves all members of a family permanently changed, as you struggle to comprehend and understand how such a horrible thing can happen to someone you love. I don't know what if any resources you've found to help you deal with this, but I hope that you will do what you can to access all the information and help that is available to you. See, for example, the sites listed in this article: Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss.

Because of the stigma attached to suicide, it is not uncommon for family members to attempt to run away from the reality of it, making the situation even worse for any children in the family. I think it's important for you to know, however, that refusing to talk about this with your nine-year-old son or to admit to him that his dad completed suicide can be very traumatic for him. What happens, for example, if your boy should overhear a conversation, get a sense that he is not being told the whole story here, and then creates his own fantasies about what really happened to his dad? What if he finds out years later that he's been lied to about this matter of such great importance, and then wonders what other lies he has been told? Withholding the truth can chip away at your boy's trust in those around him (most especially, his trust in you!), and can only add to all that stigma, guilt, anger and betrayal already left in the wake of this death by suicide. Far better that you tell your boy the truth, in a simple but honest way, than to have him hear about it outside your home, where people may not be so kind. You see, my dear, it's not a question of whether or not to tell your son, but rather how to tell him, when, and what to say.

Drawing from the book, How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons, here is what I would suggest: You know your son better than anyone else knows him, and you already know how to talk to him in a way that he can comprehend. Pick a quiet time and place where you won't be interrupted, and tell him that you want to talk to him about his dad and how he died.

You might say, for example, "Sometimes a person's body gets sick and doesn't work right. Sometimes a person's mind doesn't work right. The person can't see things clearly and he feels the only way to solve this problem is by ending his life. That's what happened with your dad."

Since you know his dad died from an overdose, you might go on to say, "Sometimes people take pills to relax, or to get to sleep, or to try to block out their problems. These pills make a person's body slow down, but too many make the body stop working. That's what happened here."

Depending on your son's reaction, developmental level and ability to understand, you might add more information: "Your dad had a very serious problem and he went through a period of weakness. If he had given himself time, he wouldn't have found it necessary to kill himself. This was the worst solution he could have chosen. But we have to try to understand him; he wasn't thinking clearly when he did this." It is extremely important for you to convince your son how terribly wrong this was, my dear. Kids often "model" their behavior after that of their parents, and research indicates that this modeling is especially strong in cases of suicide. Author Dan Schaefer notes, "This 'follow the leader' syndrome is sometimes rooted in romanticism, sometimes in certain feelings of destiny. Whatever the root, it's a connection that must be broken, with discussion, love, and in many cases, therapy (pp. 68-69)."

It is not uncommon for children to have feelings of guilt when a parent completes suicide. That's why it's important to let your boy know that if his dad really wanted to kill himself, there is nothing your son or you, or anyone else could have done to stop him; somehow his dad would have found a way. Let your boy know that much of the time, the persons closest to a suicide are the ones most surprised by it.

You say your husband “became very difficult to live with. My son and I became the brunt of his
pain at times. Even my own son has said he was glad his dad died because he could be so brutal." Along with guilt, anger is one of the most common emotions naturally associated with death, and most especially with suicide. Let your son know that it's okay for him to vent his anger at his dad, both for how he treated him when he was alive and for ending his own life. It's natural and healthy for him to feel angry at being abandoned by his parent who has completed suicide. You can say to your son, for example, "You might be feeling angry with your dad for what he did -- that it's unfair for him to have chosen this solution. That's okay; it's human to feel angry at a time like this."

You say that your husband left a suicide note. Again, quoting from How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide:
Psychiatrist Bruce Danto suggests that one way to help direct that anger is by letting older children read the suicide note, if there is one. Then they'll know the facts. If they don't, they may imagine them to be different. With honest information about what happened, the suicide can be handled in a straightforward, factual manner. That will help keep the youngster in touch with reality, and show the desperation or confusion of the person who died. "Look, you have a right to read this and be angry. Being angry at someone you love doesn't mean that you don't love them." Reassure the child that you will not abandon him in this way: "Don't worry; I would never do that to you. I would never kill myself. I'm really angry at him because he dumped on us. He was a desperate man; he couldn't see any other way out." Danto expresses the importance of telling the child that the person who [completed] suicide chose the wrong way to solve his problems. Other people have problems and they don't kill themselves. Don't glorify the dead person -- make a therapeutic split between him and the survivors. "It takes more courage to live. That he opted for a different way out was his fault." By talking in this way, Danto says you help the child mobilize his anger against the dead person, getting the grieving process started.  
Besides guilt and anger, children will also probably have to cope with the stigma associated with suicide. Many of us have been told since childhood that people who [complete] suicide go to hell. Others assume that the person was crazy, and that the rest of the family must be too. The family members who are left are traumatized, their stability shaken.
When someone in the family commits suicide, a child gets several different messages. One concerns his or her own worth. "I am not loveable enough for him to have hung around for." A second perceived message may be that he or she is a loser, says Bruce Danto. "The child may feel he is being told, 'Look, kid, I couldn't make it and neither can you.' Danto notes that when you break the news to a child that a person he loves has [completed] suicide, you have to change these perceived messages around so that the child can regain a sense of his own self-worth (pp. 66-67).
You say that your son "also said that his dad was the best guy in the world and he wished he were here. His dad showed deep love for his son as well. He loved him more than anything." I think it's important for you to help your son understand that even when we're mad at somebody, that doesn't mean that we stop loving that person. No matter how troubled he was, this man is still your boy’s father, and your boy is the son your husband loved. In the months and years ahead, you can help him come to understand that death may end a life, but it does not end a relationship. The bond he has with his dad will remain with him as long as he chooses to keep his dad's memory alive in his heart. Help your son to understand that your husband's entire life was much more than those few final moments when he chose to take his own life. Promise him that the day will come when the good memories you both have of his dad will outweigh the bad—and be sure to talk about and recall all those good memories with each other.

From the way you describe your son in the aftermath of this tragedy, it sounds as if he's doing fine, and the very fact that you wrote to me to seek advice on how to help him with this tells me that you are a good mom. Just remember that the passage of time will not heal you or your son, my dear. It is what you do with the time that matters. There is no right or wrong way to do the work of grieving, and each of us must find our own way—but I believe very strongly that the first step in coping with grief—especially in the aftermath of suicide—is to educate yourself about it, so you know what to expect and what tools are available to help you manage it. I hope that you will continue to use the Internet as one way of obtaining the information, comfort and support you need and deserve as you continue on your own grief journey. Take the time to explore some of the links I've posted on the Suicide Loss page on my Grief Healing website. Give words to your grief by sharing your story of loss in one of our Grief Healing Discussion Groups. There is an abundance of help out there just waiting for you to find it—and if you haven't yet obtained all the help you need, keep on looking!

The way you come to peace about all of this is one day at a time, and if that's too much, you work at it one hour or even one minute at a time.

I hope this information proves helpful to you, and when you're ready to do so, I hope you'll let me know how you and your son are doing. Meanwhile, please know that I am thinking of you both.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing Newsletter. Sign up here.
© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC

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