My brother took his life nine years ago. We were all devastated and, as a family, still find it hard to talk about it. At the time I did not tell my four-year-old son how his uncle had died, because I thought he was too young to know about suicide. He saw the whole family upset at the time and seemed to cope well enough. Now I am wondering whether I should tell him. When he did ask, three years ago, I let him think it was a heart attack. I regret this lie but it was all I could do at the time. What should I do now? Should I tell him, and how?
It is very difficult to explain the circumstances of the suicide of a close family member to a young child. Parents can be just about coping with the news themselves, and may not feel able to explain what happened in a way that is understandable to a child.
While it is sometimes okay not to tell a preschool child the exact circumstances of a suicide in order to protect them, as they will find this news very hard to understand, and process, it is important that you tell them later when they are old enough to understand.
It will be very beneficial to your son that you tell him about his uncle’s death rather than him finding out from another source. Telling your son should not be seen as a once-off communication but rather as an opening up of ongoing conversation between the two of you that you can come back to as need be.
In addition, this conversation is as much about listening as it is about giving information: you want to give your son space to express his feelings about the news and time to ask any questions he might have.
When and how to tell your son
As you now realise, the right time to tell your son might have been when he raised the subject a few years ago, but though you missed this opportunity, it is definitely not too late to tell him now. In fact, you can use the fact that you are telling him now as a sign to him that you trust him and are entering a new stage in your relationship with him.
You could wait until a new opportunity comes up to tell him – such as an anniversary, when you might be discussing his uncle – or it might be best simply to raise the subject directly with him, picking a time when he is relaxed and when you have some undisturbed one-to-one time together.
It is worth rehearsing the words you might use and making sure to punctuate the conversation with lots of space for listening, and checking about his feelings and reactions.
For example, you might say: “Remember when your uncle died nine years ago? There is something I want to tell you about how he died that I think you are old enough to understand now. Unfortunately, your uncle died by suicide.”
Try to answer all his questions truthfully. He may want to know the circumstances of the suicide and the lead-up, or he may want to know more about what happened afterwards.
If he asks why you told him before that he had died of a heart attack, you can say that you were sorry that he was led to believe that, and that you were finding it hard to explain to him what happened, but that now you think he is old enough to know.
Giving an important message
In speaking to your son about his uncle’s death, you want to give him an important message about seeking help when upset. You want your son to be empathetic in relation to his uncle’s distress, but to realise that there was potential support and other options for him.
Most importantly, you want your son to realise that he can talk to you if he is ever in difficulty, no matter what the circumstances.
In approaching this conversation you might say something like: “We don’t know for sure why your uncle did what he did. We think it might have been because [if you suspect a reason] but we were very sad that he chose suicide. We wish he had come to us because we could have helped him and shown him that there are other ways to deal with whatever was upsetting him.”
At this point it might be useful to pause and to ask your son what he thinks and feels about what happened to his uncle so he has space to process everything you are saying.
In talking to a young teenager like your son, it can be important to be very direct about the damage of suicide. For example, you might say: “Suicide is always tragic, damaging and irreversible to the person and everyone around them who loves them; it is something you should never do.”
You might also want to reinforce with your son that he can always talk to you if he is upset: “I hope you will never consider anything like this and that you know that no matter how bad you feel, you can always come to us to talk and that we will always be there for you.”
A challenging conversation
Though talking about a suicide directly is one of the most challenging conversations you can have with a child, in my experience children are generally able to have these conversations at a younger age than parents think.
By raising these conversations, you give children the message that you can talk about difficult subjects with them implicitly and that they can raise difficult subjects with you if they ever need to.
Also, by trusting that children can handle this information, we give them a sense of responsibility and we can use these conversations as an opportunity to explore how they can cope positively with distress.
Dr. John Sharry, The Irish Times, October 2015. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.