Talking to kids about suicide

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Those birds.  All their feet, pointing at navy blue crystal clear glass.

The deepest smartest you’ve seen.  And today they are glittering with tears.

“I’m tired, sissy. I’m ready.”

“I know.”

But I don’t, I can’t.

25 years on dialysis, held captive by machines on the one hand and chemicals — from pharmacies or liquor stores — on the other.  How could I know his struggle?  Struggle, not upward, but struggle for stasis.  Struggle to manage demons, to manage health, to manage money and family and love, rejection, every everyday affront.


We are stoic on the outside, but I toss and turn for weeks. His children are turning into men, not ready for fatherless lives.  Who is ever ready, though?

One of those weeks a celebrity kills himself.  The nation calls it a tragedy.  I am icy, unmoved, somehow.  At 62, he was an age where Hollywood began to turn away.  His last project or two did not fit his or our ideas of a trajectory of success.  Upward, always upward, and ageless.  He had children.  They say “Depression” but I find it unforgivable because of the children.

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My tossing and turning are back.  This moment recalls those moments as a kid I worried about a parent killing themselves.  My powerlessness over my brother seems like a certain guilty freedom, compared to the powerlessness of a kid, feeling helpless and overwhelmed and frightened and still planning what to do in case….

Which brings me around to parenting.  So far I have sheltered the Things (7 & 11) from both this big public and big private idea, suicide.  It feels like teaching them about a private little bruise that I have to show them and poke at to get them to understand.  I’ve left a little opening, “your uncle has been sick and tired a long time.”  But I’m not sure where to start.  As our house goes unsold and we start school Away, Again, I am not on top of my own emotions.  But before the decisive moment, I need to talk to them about depression, about human agency, and about death with dignity.  Also about handling their own emotions and how to take care of their own mental health.

This article, Cruising Toward Mellow  gives  excellent starting points for younger kids, but I’m coming to this late, I worry.

August 21, 2014: So I asked them each (separately) if they knew what suicide meant, and that it has been in the news because a celebrity committed suicide, and it turns out that he was depressed and nobody knew.  I told them that I was committed to teaching them to deal with their feelings, that they were just feelings, and that they could always talk to Dad and I about how they were feeling, and they could get help or we could help them get help — we’ve been to a Talk Doc as a family, and it was kind of fun, so they aren’t afraid of professional help at this point.  Tonight I ran across this article on depression and physical fitness, and I will talk to them each about it: “Depression in young adolescence can be prevented by physical fitness.”  The article targets the sixth grade (Thing 1’s grade) as a crucial one for increased correlation between fitness and depression.  I’ll keep updating with what I find.  The hard part will be the turn I want to make to talk to them about death with dignity, about taking the situation into one’s own hands.  We stoic New Englanders all seem to agree that years of pain at the hands of illness is undignified, and unnecessary….  Stay tuned!

I welcome any suggestions for handling this delicate topic here, or over on my Facebook page.





8 thoughts on “Talking to kids about suicide

  1. Thanks so much for linking to our Cruising to Mellow: How to Help Kids When They’re Upset post. These are huge topics and it’s hard to know when to address this kind of thing with kids. Tough when it’s all over the media. I just think that talking sometimes, even if you’re not sure what to say, is a good start. Best, Sue


  2. This is so important and so rarely talked about at an age where kids can understand mental illness and what the heck that all means. Anxiety runs in our families and we have plenty of discussions around that, but fewer about the severe forms and what thoughts come from feeling so trapped and hopeless.
    The time is now, you’re right. No matter how delicate or how scary, I’d rather have the conversation with them than them learn things from their friends based on rumours and myths. Thanks for the nudge.


    • The thing is, like death and sex and taxes, I feel that mental health is “just part of life” and should be treated as such — taught, talked about, not really Taboo with a capital T. But it’s still SO HARD and scary. I got the talk started, and will follow up occasionally, they get exasperated when I “go on and on.” Thank you for reading, Aly, and for making time to talk to your kid about this. best, Angela


  3. This is such a critically important subject. This is probably the most important reason for keeping the lines of communication open with kids on ALL subjects. There should be no taboo topics for kids that would cause them to hide or feel shameful about their thoughts, questions, or feelings. This world can’t really be hidden anymore. Better to give them your interpretation, rather than have them pick up the confusing interpretations found on the streets.


    • Wendi, I couldn’t agree more, but somehow it still seems hard — or do I mean uncomfortable? — on where to start. I’ve made my stumbling beginnings, and I’m so glad to hear others respond here with “Yes, it’s ok, talk.” Thank you so much for your comments. xx Angela


  4. I don’t remember when I became aware of suicide — early middle school maybe? It’s (thankfully) never touched my life directly.

    I agree with Wendi & Aly — no taboo. Just talking. And start BEFORE it becomes critical or scary.


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