When You Need to Talk About Suicide

The love huntSeveral months ago a colleague of my wife tragically died by suicide.  My wife and I talked about it a few times, but the conversations were brief, especially around the children.  However, we were aware that they heard some of our dialogue.  Nonetheless, neither asked for more information…at the time.

Death is something we have discussed with our seven-year-old countless times.  It became a regular topic of conversation after watching the children’s movies The Book of Life and Coco, which both have a narrative based on the afterlife.  But we have never talked about death in the context of suicide…that is until a month or so ago.

This past April, a friend attempted to die by suicide.  Thankfully, they survived.  The conversations my wife and I had following the incident was extensive and emotional.  This time, it was a person our children are familiar with.

During one of our conversation, the seven-year-old asked, “What is suicide?”  My wife and I provided a joint answer which, given the emotional circumstances I vaguely recall.  We said something like, “Suicide is when someone doesn’t feel they, and other people love and care about them.  Because of that, they want to die, so they kill, or try to kill themselves.” My daughter had no follow up questions.  That was that.

*Refer to the end of the article for a response a friend recently recommended to me.

Fast forward a couple weeks.  After getting very angry, she tells my wife that she wishes she was never born.  This occurred a few times, each time with my wife responding with love and care, reinforcing my daughter’s importance in all of our lives and everyone’s love for her.  After hugs and kisses, everything is smooth.

And then…

For the first time, my daughter shared her feelings with me.  She added, “I want to kill myself!” with rage.  I was caught off guard.  As always, I rolled through my rolodex of morals embedded into the storylines of books and movies she enjoys.  I fell back on a wonderful book a friend gave to me title, The Fish Who Searched for Water by Andrew Newman.  We talked about the fish’s struggle to understand what he thought was missing from his life – water.  The metaphoric parallel of water for a fish and love for a person is made clear at the beginning of the book.

With the book as my reference, I asked her why she felt that way.  I decoded her words to mean that she didn’t feel loved by me and at the moment, love for herself.

“I love you so much,” I told her.

“Remember the fish who was searching for water?  It wasn’t until he flew out of the water that he realized he had been surrounded by water the whole time.  Love surrounds you and I’m sorry if I made you feel differently.  How can I show you my love and the love that surrounds you?”

She was silent and hugged me.  I told her I loved her.

After the bedtime routine was complete and lullabies were sung, we snuggled in bed for a few minutes.  I left after kissing her on the forehead and guiding her into slumber with one more “I love you.”

Upon further reflection, I believe I may have perhaps made some missteps when providing the definition of suicide after the attempted suicide of our friend.  Did we inadvertently tell our daughter that any time she is not feeling loved she should try to or threaten to commit suicide?

I recently asked a friend.  They replied, “Perhaps, but that is the message she will hear when she’s older too.  The difference is that you have let her know that you will talk about it with her and will always try to be available to her if she is feeling unloved.  She won’t need to turn to other outlets that could be dangerous.  Just look at 13 reasons why.”

Dark stuff…but children’s lives are not as bright as we adults often think.  #OurChildrenAreListening

*Following the initially publication of this blog, I was informed by a friend of the following points:

It’s not commit suicide – it’s die by suicide. Commit implies a crime or bad thing we shouldn’t talk about.  Most people who consider suicide don’t want to die – they just want the pain to stop and can’t see another way to make that happen. 

Resources for those in need:

https://www.iheart.com/podcast/573-What-Were-You-Thinking-28687067/episode/ep-3-after-riley-29154174/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/201608/talking-kids-about-suicide

https://www.today.com/parents/talk-could-save-life-how-talk-about-suicide-kids-any-t94331

https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/talking_to_your_9-13_year_old.pdf