***DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or therapist of any kind. Deciding what you tell your children about suicide and/or the death of their parent is entirely up to you. What you decide to tell or not tell them is about knowing who they are and what they can and cannot handle based on their unique personality. The night my husband killed himself, I called our marriage counselor and discussed with him the best way to tell my children what had happened. The following blog is about the conversation I had with my kids (to the best of my memory), and is being posted with the intent to help others, not to judge what methods anyone else has used in regards to their children’s grief process.
The transcript of the conversation I had with my kids about John’s death is being shared with the permission of my children (now 10 and 14 years old). Certain parts that they found too personal have been left out, but the majority of the full conversation I had with them has remained intact. It is their desire to help other kids who have lost a parent to suicide feel less alone in their experience.
I believe talking to children about the death of a parent should never be a one-time conversation. I believe it should be a series of discussions that take place throughout their lifetime, and the following blog post was the first of those conversations.
THE “S” WORD
I remember when I thought the most uncomfortable conversation I’d have with my children was about sex; turns out, I was wrong. My husband John’s suicide in 2014 obliterated my fear of the sex talk; actually, his suicide pretty much obliterated everything in my life……and all of the things around my life.
And outside of my life.
And inside of my body, heart, and soul.
Ah suicide aftermath! The horrible gift that keeps on giving.
What I will not be discussing today, is the emotional environment that existed the morning I had to break the awful news to my kids. I am still (almost three years later) unable to put into words what it is and what it means to tell your kids what suicide is and that their father has just done it.
What I will be discussing today is the plain facts of what was said, and why I chose to tell my kids the truth. I know it is uncharacteristic of my writing, but I will be keeping humor and emotion out of it for now.
WHY I CHOSE TO TELL THEM THE TRUTH
I want all of you to know why I decided to tell my kids the truth about John’s suicide in the first place. I mean, I could’ve spared them the trauma of suicide aftermath and told him he accidentally shot himself during target practice, right?
Wrong. For our family, this would’ve been the wrong choice.
What I know about my son (who was seven years old at the time) is that he is curious, and what I know about my daughter (who was eleven at the time) is that she is highly intuitive, which is why there was no way in hell I could’ve lied to them about their father’s suicide. Not only was the term “self-inflicted” going to be on his death certificate (that they would be able to have access to one day should they ever want it), but I also knew that they would be able to tell that I was hiding something from them.
I feel like in general, we as a society tend to minimize not only the intelligence of children, but the deeply profound spiritual connection they have to their parents.
Kids know more than we think, so I believe that we might as well tell them. My six years of working with elementary and middle school special needs students in addition to parenting my own, has assured me of this fact.
I feel like lying to my children would’ve invalidated their inner voices. It would’ve invalidated the thing whispering to them, “there’s something more to this story….” and as their mother, I’ve always believed it is one of my many jobs to teach them to not only listen to their inner voices, but to also trust those inner voices.
I felt completely confident telling them the facts about what had happened in short, easy to understand sentences. I told them a few facts that morning and answered any questions they had, while restraining (by some miracle) tears or panic in my voice.
Shock is a gift and it’s what made me able to tell my kids what had happened without having my emotions usurp their own.
WHAT I TOLD THEM
Setting: In their bedroom at my parent’s house, early Monday morning.
Me: We need to talk. Last night while you were sleeping, daddy died.
They: (hysterical cries)
Me: (physically comforting them without saying a word)
They: How did he die?
Me: His brain was sick.
They: We saw him yesterday and he didn’t seem sick.
Me: Brain sickness can be hard for other people to see. I think he hid it from us so we didn’t worry.
They: Did he just fall down and then you took him to the hospital?
Me: No. He died out in the middle of the desert.
They: How did you know he died?
Me: He knew he was going to die, so he sent me a text message and then I called him and talked to him for a little bit before he died while Papa called 911, but by the time they found daddy, he was already dead.
They: How did he know he was going to die? Did his brain just start hurting?
Me: Daddy did something called ‘suicide.’ His brain was so sick that it told him he shouldn’t be alive anymore. His brain told him to take a gun out to the desert and to shoot himself.
They: He shot himself?!
Me: Yes. But it wasn’t him shooting himself, it was his sick brain. If your heart stops working, you have a heart attack. If your lungs stop working you can’t breathe and you die. If your brain stops working it controls your thoughts, and your thoughts tell you that you should be dead so you do whatever you can to make yourself die.
They: (more hysterical cries)
Me: There is going to be a lot happening this week. There is already family in the living room and more people might want to come by to see us. You guys can do and say and feel whatever you want. If you don’t want people here, I’ll tell them to leave. If you want your friends here and you just want to stay in your room that’s okay too. Nothing you do will get you in to trouble except for maybe if you burn the house down (slight laughter and ease of tension). You don’t have to go to school this week unless you want to. You might hear people using phrases like, “passed away, funeral, casket, suicide, cremation” and other things that sound confusing. If you want to know what they mean, just ask me. If you have any other questions about what happened, just ask me. You will see a lot of adults cry. This might feel scary for you but it’s going to be okay. A sad thing happened and it’s okay for everyone to be sad and cry.
And just like that, their innocence was taken.
So many parents miss this. They wake up one morning to find that their children no longer exist in the realm of childhood, and they wonder when and how it happened. I got to witness the beginning of my children’s transformation into the heaviness of adulthood. They had responsibility now. They would have to learn to heal themselves. This is something I cannot do for them; this is something that cannot be taught.
I don’t remember if it was seconds or minutes, but that morning, in the presence of that unique kind of light that happens when it is still night time, but also morning, I watched my kids sleep. I watched and I savored their last moments as children before I had to teach them the one universal truth about life: that it is not fair. Dad’s die.
There will never be a greater privilege in my life than watching the last moments of their childhood.
And even with all of the darkness that took place after this, even after all of the screams and tears and coldness inside of my body that I still can’t seem to shake, this memory of them sleeping warms me.
Well, so much for me not getting emotional! I still held up on my promise to not use humor in this post though so I am half way winning!
Even after writing this, I still can’t believe this actually happened. Furthermore, I still can’t believe I have been given the gift of a forum and an audience to speak about these things on and to! Thank you all who continue to read my ramblings and commiserate with me through this train wreck called, widowhood.
© Copyright2017 Michelle Miller