How to Talk to Children About Suicide

The expression, “I have no words,” have been echoing repeatedly since my brother-in-law committed suicide last week.

Yes, he killed himself. A gunshot wound to the chest at his home and he was gone.

I warn you, I am going to be blunt and tell the TRUTH in this blog because I’m tired of people sweeping the unseemly under the rug and being hush-hush when someone commits suicide.

It’s this very silence on this “taboo” topic, this turn-your-head-away-because-it-could-never-happen-to-me mentality that causes loved ones to be mental, maniacal, suicidal.

I was the first family member in California my sister Lynn contacted when the unthinkable happened at her home in Fort Myers, Fla.

Last Saturday, I thought it was strange my sister was calling at 1:30 a.m. her time. I will never forget the bone-chilling, screeching voice as my sister cried in an unrecognizable voice, “Chris [her husband] shot himself!”

I couldn’t understand what was going on. “What? Who is this?”

She screamed repeatedly, “Chris shot himself in the chest!”

Worried about my nephew Drew, 12, and niece Serena, 8, I yelled, “How are the kids?”

“They’re not injured. I need you here! The police are here,” Lynn shouted as she hung up.

Shock… helplessness… disbelief… grief… sent tremors through my body.

I scrambled to call loved ones to help me sort through the foggy madness. I needed someone to grab the kids, hold them and tell them they’ll be OK.

Thankfully, we got a hold of a couple of Chris’ best friends in Florida, Mike and Stephanie Letourneau, to quickly retrieve the kids to make sure they were in loving arms as the police investigation was underway.

I booked the next flight to Fort Myers and feverishly searched online for “How to help grieving children” and “How to explain suicide to kids.” I also called my psychologist friends, Dr. Gladys Ato and Dr. Ron Holt, for counsel. (I sure didn’t want to say the wrong things and thwart the healing process or cause more anguish.)

When I arrived in Florida, I hugged my inconsolable sister, niece and nephew and promised them we would get through this together because we have awesome, loving and supportive family and friends.

I notice the awkward interactions that usually ensue as folks tried to console my family. What do we do? What do we say? How do we help heal? What if we say something wrong?

Four days later, my sister’s neighbor told me she wasn’t going to tell her kids. I feel this hush-hush, don’t talk about it, skirt-around-the-truth mentality is what teaches our kids to silence their natural state, hold back and bottle emotions and creates this vicious cycle of dishonesty.

I thought, “If we don’t tell the truth, talk and cry openly, we are closing off the communication that heals us all during times of grief.”

I had to pen this blog to share the amalgam of learnings, research and tips from grief counselors (thank you to all the pros who mirrored this same message.)

1. Tell the TRUTH. Many folks don’t like confrontation and would rather tell half-truths, white lies or complete lies altogether. If you don’t tell your kids, or decide to tell them a partial truth, trust me, the truth will eventually surface. My niece told her other 8-year-old (and younger) friends, “My daddy shot himself. I am sad. I miss him.”

During this already confusing time of grief, if parents don’t tell the kids the truth and the kids found out from others, I believe this causes distrust and breaks the comfort and openness kids desperately need during times of distress.

2. When talking to kids about death, use simple, easy-to-understand clear words. Don’t say “passed away.” Don’t say “went to sleep.” It confuses kids. Instead consider saying “died” or “killed.” Be honest. Children will express grief in different ways. Some through talking. Others will act out, scream and shout. Here is a good resource on how to talk to kids of certain developmental ages.

3. Encourage them to express their feelings and cry. Don’t hide your emotions and tears. Let them flow. Tears do wash away some of the pent up anger, resentment and sadness.

I cried in front of my niece and nephew, but ran out of the house when I was about to burst into an ugly cry. My nephew (remember, he’s 12) ran out to hug and console me and said, “It will be OK, Uncle Toan.” My niece (remember, she’s 8) told my sister, “Mom, don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be heartbroken, you could die of heartbreak.”

Another time, my nephew shared, “I got you a gift. Remember, you really liked this candle at the boutique? I wanted to get it for you.” He knows my fondness for candles, apothecary stuff. He knew it would calm me. I couldn’t believe that in a time of grief, he was thinking of caring for me.

Listen to your kids, they can teach us so much!

I noticed my nephew and niece were able to process some of the pain better after they began talking about their feelings. I encourage starting off the dialogue by telling a story about the person who passed away. I also noticed funny memories helped create some levity and lifted their spirits.

Dr. Ato and Dr. Holt both strongly recommended getting my sister and her kids to a psychologist with experience in childhood trauma as soon as possible, as the success rate is significantly better the quicker they can get professional help. My sister was still in shock and looked like a zombie when I saw her. She was in no state to make decisions. So I booked them a session with a psychologist fast.

Things I told/asked them:
– It’s OK to cry.
– They said they were confused. I told them I was, too, and encouraged them to talk about it so we could help each other understand.
– How are you feeling after losing dad?
– What are some good memories you had with him?
– Kids undergoing the trauma of losing a parent or guardian worry about being cared for. So I told them my family and I will always be there to take care of them and talk to them through all of their troubles and mistakes.

4. Reassure and tell them it’s not their fault. One stage of grief is blaming ourselves or feeling guilty. When dealing with suicide, tell the kids, “It’s not your fault. It’s the disease in his head that killed him. Not you.”

5. Let them know they are not alone and we will get through this together. Again (it’s important to do this again and again) kids want to be comforted and know they will be taken care of. Let them know you’ll always be there for them.

6. Oxygen mask first. When you’re on an airplane, you’re reminded in case of an emergency, the oxygen masks will drop and you should put your mask on first before helping others. Remember, you’re grieving too, so practice self-care. If you’re not well, you’re not going to do a good job helping your loved ones.

7. Breathe… this too shall pass. It may be a good idea to set a timer on your cell phone to remember you to breathe and focus on the present moment and the things you’re grateful for during this time of distress.

8. As one of my favorite poets, the late Maya Angelou, once said, “There is always a rainbow in the cloud.” Trust me, grief is like surfing. It hits you in waves. In 2000, I lost four family members in a year’s time. It does get better. If you are present, talk about your feelings and work through your grief.

Here is an interview I conducted with my dear friend Marianna Cacciatore, a grief expert. I love how she explains how grief leads to love and generosity:

Here are some additional links to helpful resources:
“Helping your child deal with death” (KidsHealth)
“How to help a grieving child” (The Dougy Center)

* Special thanks to everyone who has reached out, prayed, donated food and resources, opened their home and continue to send their love. IT is lifting us and allowing us to see light during these dark times.

* If you would like to help support my sister’s family, a friend has set up a GoFundMe campaign.

As my niece says, I love you (all) beyond the universe and back.

Love and light,

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