I Talk To My Kids About My Suicidal Thoughts

by Lauren Rowello
Originally Published: 

I turned the dial to NPR and took a left, cutting through side streets to avoid rush-hour traffic. My kids and I listened to the news on the way home–an evening ritual. They sat behind me in bulky car seats with five-point-harnesses, one of them with legs dangling and the other kicking the seat. In the rear view mirror, I could see my oldest’s muddy face still flush from running up and down a grassy field, his hair a disheveled nest of twiggy strands from deep dives at soccer practice. It was three years ago, when he was just six years old. We hit a pothole with a bump just as the anchor told us that a beloved comedian had lost his life to suicide.

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“What’s that?”

I paused before finding a gentle definition to share, and after, he sighed. “Why would anyone do that?”

These conversations are tricky. Some parents feel unsure if the young people in their lives are ready for these complex and tragic topics. Some need to shield small children from their own realities as survivors who lost caregivers, siblings, or other loved ones to suicide. Many struggle to find a way to cope for themselves, so how could they ever locate the head space and resources to discuss this with kids? Is it even appropriate?

I guess, for me, it just feels honest. Suicidal ideation is a big part of my life–a repetitive intrusion that abruptly interrupts my day, the way notes for a to-do list interject themselves into daydreams. The way some daydreams interject themselves into mundane tasks.

It winks, shamelessly flirting, and leaves a tight, tender throb in my chest when it teases. Like a secret lover sneaking brushes against my body undetected in front of my kids, my spouse, my friends. It’s a persistent street harasser I can’t shoo away. He follows me on my commute to work, whispering about my flaws and insecurities and failings.

As a trauma survivor, I know that the healing process includes more than weekly counseling or getting back to work, school, and “regular” life. For me, it’s meant learning to accept that these feelings will creep in like parasites when I least expect it ,  taking me as a host before I realize they’re present.

Nowadays, we listen to the news at dinner. Forks clang against a ceramic dish as I toss bright tomatoes and vibrant greens: a salad waiting in the middle of the our wooden table. The kids giggle as they bite crescent shapes into fresh, crunchy cucumbers for veggie-themed brows and mustaches. We turn down the radio and settle into our meal, but I still hear it: “The third suicide…” My eyes grow distant and our salad seems pale, limp in my periphery. I tell Alexa in my own robotic staccato to play music so we don’t have to listen to the report. I’m suddenly exhausted with a familiar, achy yearning–the first stage of my climbing anxiety. I want rest, the kind two tired eyelids beg for by pulling towards each other with a magnetic force.

My kids ask what it’s like to contemplate suicide, and I wait for wisdom. I can’t describe my graphic thoughts about my own undoing. The thoughts that seem to replace nutrients in the air with a poison–contaminants that feed me on a cellular level. I can’t tell them that it’s hard to feel the difference between the good and the bad since both mental illness and wellness are an odorless, colorless gas.

I tell them that some days Mommy’s mind travels to space, leaving to explore the darkness while my body stays home to fold laundry, help with homework, smile. I reassure them that I don’t want my life to end, that sometimes those thoughts just take over — that even though they aren’t logical, they’re real and it’s hard to escape their impact when they’re with me.

I explain that even though it doesn’t seem like it’s possible now, someday they might struggle with these feelings–and that doesn’t make either of them bad or weird or scary. Like diabetes or cancer runs through certain families, I know that mine has a history filled with this kind of thing–and that there’s no way to shield my kids from the hurts and traumas that might bring it on. I tell them that this is not something we can help ourselves or our friends through on our own–that we should get help when we recognize the need. We face the hard truth that we already love lots of people who live with this experience even though they haven’t shared it with us.

I tell them what we do to cope. How some dance and sing. How my dad told jokes. How I write and seek community. How we pursue healing.

At times we’re silent, and I struggle to fill the quiet with stammering murmurs, shaking my head with a sad, wrinkled brow. I bite my lip and poke at my dinner, taking slow breaths through my nose to calm my pounding chest. My little ones fidget with their utensils, and I lean over to pat their backs.

They feel safe asking me questions, but I don’t have answers and I don’t want to pretend I do. We talk about how confusing it is for everyone — even and especially for those who struggle to live with these thoughts.

This week, two young adults and a father made national headlines as victims of suicide after experiencing intense, violent trauma related to mass shootings — another serious concern my kids have heard on the radio. I wish the news would broadcast topics easier to discuss , but this is life right now. Our little ones spend tinyhood hiding under desks during school safety drills–planning for what-ifs and worst case scenarios because they happen. Maybe that’s what I’m doing: preparing them for what could happen.

I’m not a danger to myself right now–not in the clinical sense. I don’t have any plans to self-harm or access to weapons I might use against my body. But I recently had the realization that people who kill themselves lived like I live for days or years or decades before taking their own lives. In one moment, the compulsion became too strong and it happened.

Some of them were moms like me with kids like mine. I want my children to know what this is and not be afraid to ask me if I’m okay or to admit to me if they ever struggle–so we work through awkward questions and uncomfortable conversations about suicide. It’s not easy, but we talk about it.

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