What do we talk about when we talk about suicide? Often, we ask how. Then, when. And finally why.
This last is the most difficult question to answer: Why did someone kill themselves? It's a question many have asked this week with the deaths by suicide of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef Anthony Bourdain.
With the headlines this week, your children may also be asking why. If fame and success supposedly equate to happiness, why did they kill themselves, Mom?
That question is an impossible one to answer, particularly when it's your wide-eyed 7-year-old doing the asking. So, what to say?
- Plan ahead. As difficult as facing the topics of suicide and death is, it's important you think ahead about what you want to tell your child before launching into a conversation. Start with a reference point ("I saw on TV that..." or "I read today that..."). Rehearse if you need to.
- Choose your words carefully. People commit crimes. They do not commit suicide. Instead, use language that reflects compassion rather than condemnation. Use the phrases "death by suicide," "ended their life" or "took their life."
- Listen. No matter your child's age, they will have something to share about this topic. And if you hear something that worries you, be honest. "What you're telling me has really gotten my attention and I need to think about it some more. Let's talk about this again, okay?"
- Don't leave out mental illness. Treat it as you would any other illness — without judgement.
- Discuss prevention. Talking about death and suicide is scary. Stress that no one is alone when dealing with either. Share the work of suicide prevention organizations — two of note: Forefront at the University of Washington and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) — and share that resources exist online where people can privately discuss suicide and access needed resources (find some here).
- End with hope. Suicide is not an inevitable outcome. Discuss stories of hope and recovery including these from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you or someone you love is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). The line is open 24/7, free and confidential.
Additional tips from a Seattle psychologist
Local psychologist and ParentMap author Laura Kastner, Ph.D., offers this additional advice when it comes to talking to your kids about suicide: