For every suicide that occurs, there is usually at least one child impacted. For the roughly 40,000 suicides that occur annually, there are thousands of child survivors who live with the emotional consequences.
I lost my father to suicide when I was eight years old. My mother never told me how my father died, so I could only imagine that something awful had occurred. My older brother knew what happened, but he avoided me because he’d been told not to tell me. When I returned to school, my classmates whispered behind my back. In this time of turmoil, no one comforted me; I was lonely and cut off from my classmates and immediate family.
The way in which my family and community handled his death were the seeds of my own role as an advocate against stigma in the face of suicide and mental illness. This all happened over 50 years ago, and we might say that there is less stigma now. But those of us who are committed to destigmatizing mental illness know that we still need to be tireless in our efforts.
We can start by not sugarcoating suicide when talking to children. Children can tell intuitively when we are lying, and they stop trusting us. When a loved one dies by suicide, we need to be honest and accessible to our children—that means having difficult, heart-wrenching conversations with them. Small children should be spared the details, but no child should be spared the truth. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t lie, trivialize or pretend it didn’t happen.
- Talk about mental health and mental illness.
- Reassure them that this will not happen to them.
- Comfort them and answer their questions honestly.
- Reassure them that even though a suicide occurred, it doesn’t mean the person they have lost didn’t care about or love them.
- Avoid sharing graphic details.
- Allow them to have questions about God, faith and religion. Engage their efforts to work out what they are going through in a spiritual way if they are inclined to do so.
- Seek professional counseling.
When we have the courage to come face-to-face with a child’s grief and confusion after a suicide, we take an important step in preventing the spread of stigma to another generation. Let’s make a conscious effort to start telling a more honest story with the most tender among us—our children.
Diana Hoguet, MA is a longtime advocate and person in recovery. In retirement now, after working as a chef and writer., Diana is enjoying writing about mental illness for theater and performing her work.