Talking to kids about a suicide

My uncle took his life yesterday. He has suffered from emphysema for years and said when it got bad, he would kill himself.

Our kids are 16, 19 and 21. They’re certainly old enough to know the truth. I’m just not sure they need to know. On one hand, I think it will come out eventually and I want them to know we’re up front with them about these things.

On the other, it’s not like they were close or knew him well and it really doesn’t affect them in any direct way.

If anyone has delt with this sort of thing, input would be appreciated. My husband and I have not decided what to do.
—KCT

KCT, My condolences at the loss of your uncle. A friend of mine commited suicide years ago, and I still think about her sometimes. Her death was the first time anyone close to me had died and it was rather devastating. I spoke to her mother a few years later and I could clearly see her mom still suffered from the loss. So yes, I have talked to my kids about suicide because it was hard enough losing a friend to suicide and I don’t want to loose a child to suicide if I can do anything to prevent it.

A little while ago my husband, the older children and I watched “Dead Poets Society”, and the story line includes the suicide of one of the characters. My younger teen was somewhat shocked by the movie twist and the thought whole concept that someone would kill himself was stupid. I hadn’t seen the movie in years, but it stirred up all kinds of memories and I cried and cried once again at the loss of my friend. And then, I talked to my children about suicide.

I told them things like take people seriously if they talk about killing themselves. (Like your uncle, most people who kill themselves do talk about it first.) I brought up suicide hotlines, and we discussed how what seems like very bad situations usually get better. I spoke a bit about my friend, not in great detail, but acknowledged her existance and sad demise. Your uncle’s situation brings up different points worth discussing, such as the value of human life and redemptive suffering. The conversation could go beyond suicide to euthanasia.

Still, I can completely understand wanting to protect your older children by not sharing the information about your uncle with them. There are other situations and stories in my family that I only learned about as and adult, and I don’t think it hurt me at all that my parents protected my innocence by not sharing every family skeleton. So while I think parents should talk to kids about how suicide is wrong and suicide prevention, maybe you don’t need to share the details of this particular suicide. Pray about it and use your best judgement.

I was in this situation also, but my own kids were a lot younger, so were not told.

However, the older children in the family were also not told the truth from their own parents. They eventually found out and were very upset about the lies they had been told.

Personally, I think honesty is best here. Although they didn’t know him well, it’s still a member of the family.

I will keep your uncle and your family in my prayers.

Trish

I had an uncle who killed himself a few years back, and I did tell my kids, even though they were quite a bit younger than yours. It was a good chance to talk about how you handle disappointments and hardships in your life. I wasn’t graphic with them about, and I would say they got a lot out of being able to talk about it.

My mom chose not to tell my youngest sister who was a teenager at the time, and I really think that was a bad choice. There were times at family gatherings where the topic came up, and was uncomfortable for us, not knowing if she knew or what she knew and trying not to talk about it. Plus, I would tend to think if she found out about it later and found out that everyone else knew and kept it from her, that she would feel like someone on the outside. I really do think it is best to be open with kids, include them, and use it as an opportunity to have a substantive discussion with them.

The Cathecism of the Catholic Church has some guidance on suicide, I would use it as a guide for explaining. If memory serves, Fr. Benedict Groeschel also has done some writing on the subject.

My Great-Uncle killed himself when I was 13. My parents chose to tell me and my siblings (all older) the truth, and I think it was a wise decision.

It is a teaching opportunity, and as mentioned above, the truth is bound to come out at a later time anyway. Had my parents chosen to lie to me about that situation I would have put that lie into my little quiver of teenage spite arrows.

My condolences. It must be very tough for you and your family right now.

I agree that your kids don’t need to know how their uncle died. If they were younger I think you could truthfully tell them that he died as a complication of his emphysema. But unless your extended family is very secretive I don’t see how your kids won’t find out that emphysema was a factor but not the ultimate cause of death.

If they are not very close to this uncle then you may find out that they take his death more matter-of-fact than you expect. But it will be a teaching moment, as others have said. You can explain how hard it is in this case because the Church teaches that suicide is gravely wrong and as a result you are suffering with the knowledge he would do such a thing. But you likewise hold out hope and pray that God was merciful to your uncle since his death was not so much a rejection of life but rather a step away from pain.

You might find some useful information on the resource website I helped put together on Suicide, Abortion & Euthanasia.
life.org.nz/suicide.htm

A priest friend of mine, who has a ministry to people who are suicidal, says he is impressed with the way we handled the subject and the information presented. I talked to him for many hours while researching the subject.

My grandfather off’d himself 3 weeks before his 50th anniversary. I was around 17.

One of the best tidbits of advise I heard was “Don’t try to rationalize an irrational act.”

You cannot surmise, guess, or justify what this person has done - those thoughts/reasons died with them, and you’ll never know why.

Something must have been terribly troubling with my Granddad, and your uncle probably didn’t want to go (or watch his family go) through the slow death of emphysema.

I don’t know I have been praying about it since Sunday morning when we found that a parishioner, about to graduate HS, friend and classmate of most of our recently confirmed candidates, killed himself this weekend. Friends and relatives are distraught and the entire community is affected. I don’t know what to say to kids who will be at the funeral home tonite, who are gathering every night for the novenas (9 nights of rosary prayed for deceased), or at the funeral, or for the last CCD session on Saturday. we have a prayer service planned, since some of his relatives and close friends will be there, but I hope the Holy Spirit sends me something to say that will help. Right now I am numb.

I am so sorry about the teen at your parish. How devastating.

—KCT

puzzleannie, I’m very sorry also, & will say a prayer for that teen & all those affected at your parish.

KCT, I’m also very sorry for the loss of your uncle, & will also pray for him. He must have been in so much mental & physical pain. I think puzzleannie’s post illustrates, though, that suicide is a very real & all-too-common issue for teens. Maybe , since your kids weren’t too close to him, this will provide an opportunity for your kids to learn a little more about death & suicide in a less emotional way.

Some people use the death of a more distant relative as a way of teaching their older kids about death & rituals like viewings & funerals. It can help them learn what these rituals are like in a less gut-wrenching way than if it were a close relative. They are then a little more prepared as to what will happen if a close friend or relative dies. I agree with Chovy that this can be a teaching opportunity in a less-threatening way.

Suicide is really an issue for teens your kids ages, & I would talk about it. Get some brochures & look at websites like Eileen T’s. I think they are old enough to sense something is wrong & they are not being told something.

My brother-in law committed suicide a few years ago. My husband suffers terribly today. My kids were all very young, so we decided to tell them about the suicide later. I just didn’t know how to explain it. I was worried they couldn’t understand the differences between mental illness, depression, sadness,etc… You worry that they will worry about suicide when they are sad. We told the kids he had a bad accident. They wanted to know what kind. We said we weren’t sure exactly, but would let them know when we find out. My 3rd grader was the oldest, & heard her dad tell someone he had committed suicide over the phone. She didn’t say anything for a few days, & then one day at the end of Mass she asked me what suicide was. She had heard him say a statistic on the phone, something like there are 100 suicides every hour or day. She thought suicide was when someone shoots you in the head.

Once kids come to you, you definitely have to tell them the truth. You want to shield your kids from tragedy, but it happened in their family. I think they are at an age where it can give you an opportunity to give them your values about suicide.

Most importantly, they can learn the effect of suicide on those left behind (something some teens never see) & open up the lines of communication, prevent trust issues. Forgive my being so opinionated & verbose, but I would respectfully urge you to talk to them…

Our kids have had plenty of exposure to death and funerals. We’ve always been matter of fact about it.

We’re just deciding if they NEED to know their great uncle killed himself. I lean towards being up front, because I do believe it will come out eventually. —KCT

KCT,
I am so sorry about your uncle. Although I do not condone the decision he made, at least his friends and loved ones knew his reasoning and might be able to come to terms with it without blaming themselves or feeling like others are blaming them. I think that is one of the hardest things survivors have to face along with the grief when a loved one dies this way.

Our closest family friends lost their 16 year old son to suicide 2 months ago. Although we all knew he had struggled with depression last year, no one thought his problems were anywhere near this serious. I still have a hard time thinking about this and I can only remember him smiling - he was always smiling whenever we saw him. His mother is my very best friend and I have tried to be comforting to her, but I cannot imagine the pain she is in. I think it grows worse every day. They have joined a support group and I hope this will help them heal eventually.

My sons were 13 and 21 at the time. The 21 year old had already lost 2 friends to suicide and we had discussed the issue with him. At the time, he was angry at his friends for not getting help. I had no choice but to tell my 13 year old about our friend. Everyone in the family knew something terrible had happened by my reaction the night my friend called to tell me she had lost her “baby”. My younger son had a hard time with it because he considered this boy to be his friend and he did not understand why anyone would take their own life. I could not give him a reason since this child had everything a child could want as far as I could tell - so many very good people who loved him.

I do think it is important to let teenagers know that some of the very strong emotions they feel at this age can lead them to make irrational choices. They need to know that these emotions are temporary and life is always changing. No matter how bad things get, there is always hope for tomorrow, especially at that age. I know that for some people, chemical imbalances are a factor in depression and suicidal feelings. Children should know they can trust their family with these feelings and that we will do whatever it takes to help them.

Like a previous poster stated it is impossible to truly understand an irrational act. I remember when we were first taught about suicide in Catholic School. We were studying the Holy Scripture passages about Judas Iscariot and for some reason I was really upset about his suicide. I think it was because we were taught The Truth about suicide being a mortal sin - but what I instinctively knew (I was only in 2nd grade and would not have been able to verbalize this well) is that no one would willingly, and with full knowledge and mental health, choose to end their life. There had to be some sort of mitigating circumstance that would fill someone so full of despair that life was not an option. And if someone was really that turned around how could God send them to Hell for eternity…anyway, you got the idea…I was only 7 or 8 but it really bothered me.

A very kind and loving nun told me two things that have always stuck with me:

  1. God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there.
  2. God operates outside time and space - and we have no idea what might go on between the moment someone made the decision to kill themselves and their actual death. We must always hope that they repented, that they turned to God…we must NEVER lose that hope.

What I realize now, of course, is that she was teaching me well. Now I know that people must be able to form intent before they can commit a mortal sin - they must fully understand what they are doing and chose to do it anyway - and if someone is in incredible pain (physically or psychologically) I must be willing to trust that God, in His infinite mercy, understands their torment. I cannot judge, I cannot condemn…I must trust.

I’ve lost many people over the years to the horrible decision of suicide. I cannot lose trust that Jesus has showered mercy and love on them…

I would tell them the truth. When I was 14 my big brother commited suicide. The circumstances around his suicide made it even harder and more traumatic but my parents told me the truth about it. He wasn’t around very much and I can’t say I blame him. So obviously we weren’t close at all, I only have one memory of him when he was alive.

I would have been very upset with my parents if they hadn’t told me the truth though. Even though I hardly knew my brother I looked up to him very much. No one in my family realized how much I looked up to him, they still don’t…we just didn’t talk about him ever. I took his death very hard because of that…the person I wanted to be like the most when I grew up killed himself, what 14 year old wouldn’t take that hard?

I’d say tell your kids the truth, learning the truth right off the bat is easier than learning after being told lies.

LSK,
I wholeheartedly agree with you. The issue with Judas was actually one of the stumbling blocks over the years that kept me from being a Christian:blush: ! When my oldest was in CCD, he had one particularly unqualified teacher who told the class suicide is the unforgiveable sin. We corrected this misinformation. I believe there is a moment at death when Jesus searches our hearts and lets us know the fullness of His love. I don’t know if this is totally in keeping with Catholic teaching, but it has always comforted me when thinking of the death of a loved one. We cannot know the mind of another and certainly are not qualifed to judge their hearts. As Christians, we are only called to reflect God’s love and forgiveness, especially to those who need it most.

If you believe that Jesus gives us EVERY SINGLE CHANCE to choose Him (and thus choose eternal life) then you are in line with Catholic teaching.

I remember telling a dear friend who lost his mother to suicide to remember that what killed her was the disease of depression - she suffered HORRIBLY from depression and was in and out of hospitals for years before she died - and I will never forget the look of gratitude on his face.

nichjake, I am so sorry that you lost your brother to suicide. I also feel badly that no one in your family talks about him ever. I know that happens sometimes, but it must be difficult for you. The fact that no one in your family knows how deeply his death affected you must be hard for you. I hope there is someone you can talk to about it.

KCT, I wish you luck with handling this awful situation, no matter what you & your husband decide.

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