What should we say to our children about the suicide of my father-in-law (their grandfather)? It happened about four years ago. At the time our kids were very young and my wife and I simply told them that Grandpa died because he was sick and elderly without providing any further details. Our two oldest are twelve and nine now, and they want to know more. What would you advise?
A great deal depends upon what they already know. Our guess is that they've probably already heard some pieces of the story over the last four years. We'd suggest that you get the ball rolling by giving them a chance to express their thoughts. Find out what snippets of information they've picked up on their own. Encourage them to draw their own conclusions. Sit down with them and ask, "What have people said to you about Grandpa's death? How did you feel when you first heard about it?" It's important to get a sense of their emotional reaction to this family tragedy before moving forward with the discussion.
As the conversation proceeds, feel free to speak honestly about your emotions. Describe your reaction to your father-in-law's death and the events that led up to it. It's okay to be open with your own pain and sorrow. Now that your kids are older, they deserve to know the truth. Help them face the facts for what they are. Bring the dark secrets to light. Do what you can to provide them with some helpful insights into who their grandfather was, the issues he was wrestling with, and his reasons for feeling so hopelessly hurt and wounded. Let them know that sometimes people feel so sad about what is happening in their lives that they believe things will never get better. They lose all hope in the future and become convinced that killing themselves is the only way to stop the pain.
How much detail should you volunteer? To a large extent that depends on the child. There's never any need to get overly graphic, but if a kid has a curious nature and really wants to know how Grandpa "did it," it could prove counterproductive to withhold a reasonable explanation. You don't want to frustrate or confuse your children unnecessarily. Besides, if you don't tell them, they'll probably find a way to ferret out the information on their own.
Tell your children how sad the suicide made you feel and that you couldn't bear it if something like that ever happened to them. Assure them that they can talk to you about anything in their lives, anytime, no matter how sad, scary, or embarrassing it may seem. Let them know that the Bible tells us that if we trust in Jesus and commit our lives to Him, He promises that He will never leave us or forsake us.
You may also want to give some serious attention to the question of generational patterns. If depression and suicide have been recurring themes in your family history, and if any of your kids have a tendency to fall prey to darker moods, it might be a good idea to say, "Things like this have happened in our family before, but they're not going to happen again. We all need to make up our minds that the pattern stops here. No matter what the problem may be, suicide is not the answer. It's the enemy's plan, and we've got to stop him from using it against us. Let's make a family resolution right now: if any of us ever finds himself or herself slipping into a self-destructive frame of mind, we're going to talk about it and get the help we need."
If this direct approach doesn't seem merited by the circumstances, it might still be helpful to prompt your children with some questions designed to stimulate constructive thought and conversation. For example, you could ask, "What are some other ways Grandpa could have dealt with his pain? What can you do if you feel that depression is becoming a serious problem in your life?"
If you'd like to talk about this at greater length, please call and speak with one of our counselors for a free consultation.
Suicide (resource list)
How to Help Your Child Grieve