I stared blankly at the inquisitive, loving, and innocent boy with the big brownish-hazel Bambi eyes looking up at me, waiting for an answer. When I wasn’t responding, he asked again. All I could do was say, “sometimes these things happen. So do you want some ketchup with your dinner?” How pathetic, I thought to myself. You’ve had 4.5 years to prepare yourself for an answer. What was that?
Prior to having children, us humans like to tell ourselves all the things we are going to do with and say to our children. I used to imagine different scenarios in which I was talking to my son about my brother. However, in these scenarios, my son was much older than his current age and the conversations took a sitcom-like direction where my delivery was as poignant, yet cheesy, as Danny Tanner and Clair Huxtable. Never in these scenarios was my son only four and I the awkward, speechless mother, but that was the reality.
Talking about suicide can be uncomfortable and difficult even amongst grown adults, let alone trying to navigate the topic with small children. When my son went to bed, I googled “how to talk about suicide to a four-year-old” in hopes of finding something that resonated with me. One grief counselor’s webpage spoke of telling the truth and suggested saying, “he was sad and didn’t know how to end the pain any other way”. I sat with this for a while.
At the age of five, my own uncle committed suicide and I was told it was an accident. I realized at a young age that there was more to the story than was being said. My mom told me the truth when I was 14 after I had been asking to know more details for quite some time. I always told myself I would be open and honest with my kids about my brother’s death, because I didn’t want it to be a secret filled with shame. Now that I’ve been faced with the question myself, I know why my mom wasn’t forthcoming with me from an earlier age.
Kids are only kids for so long. The magic, the innocence, the sweet curiosity, and their biggest worries consisting of not being able to watch a second episode of their favorite show or not getting to have a second dessert only lasts for so long. In only one year my firstborn will be off to kindergarten and soon, the world will slowly peel the innocence layer from him without my say in the matter. Who am I to tell him, at the age of four, that some people are so sad that they don’t want to be alive anymore? Who am I to even think his brain is capable of fully grasping this concept, when my 33-year-old brain still has a hard time?
My brother, Tyler, died by suicide 7.5 years ago, three years prior to my oldest son’s birth. They say when a sibling passes, surviving siblings are mourning a large part of their past, present, and future. One of the hardest aspects of his death is the fact that my children will never know him, and vice versa. Because he died before they were born, I have often wondered if my kids would even show an interest in hearing stories about Tyler.
My son, however, has shown a great interest in asking about Uncle Tyler and often speaks of him being in heaven with the dinosaurs and our dog, Fernando. He asks if he liked playing video games, what foods he liked, and what games we played. I could sit here and continue telling myself that I should have been prepared for this question; I should have had an answer prepared to give. As my husband gently reminded me, it is hard to have an age-appropriate response ready on hand when you never truly know when it’s coming.
The only thing I know now more than I did prior to my son asking how my brother died is that there is no one right way to answer this, but there sure are a lot of well-meaning answers one could give that could potentially be damaging. I can’t protect my kids from everything, but I can do my best to keep their minds shielded from unnecessary hurt or confusion for as long as possible. I still don’t have an answer for my son, nor am I anywhere close.
For now, I focus on telling him the good stuff, like: Uncle Tyler used to like playing Mario and beating up Bowser, too! He liked trains and Nana made him a Thomas the Train Halloween costume one year. He liked playing outside and bugging mommy, just like you do. I want my children to get a sense of who my brother was as a person before delving into the nitty gritty details of his death. After all, he was a person and deserves to be remembered for more than how he died. No, I don’t know how I’ll answer my son when he asks again. For now, I’ll look at his innocent little face and tell him mommy doesn’t have an answer to give; for that, after all, is the truth.