Why I Talk to My Kids About Suicide

by Kathryn Leehane
Originally Published: 

My friend’s husband killed himself a few weeks ago. After she had left the house for a meeting, he hung himself in their backyard. I watched as the coroner backed up the transport vehicle into the driveway. I watched as the body bag was removed from their property. I watched as the vehicle drove away, leaving this woman without her life partner.

Afterward I spoke with my friend, offering what support I could. She suggested that I not share the cause of death with my children—to say that her husband died suddenly of an illness and leave out the suicide part. While I agree that he did in fact die of a medical condition, I absolutely must share the rest of the information with my children.

I can’t not talk about it.

See, mental illness runs in my family, and it is a frequent topic of discussion in my household. My grandmother was bipolar. I live with chronic depression, and several other family members do as well. Tragically, one of my brothers died by suicide a few years ago due to this insidious disease.

Suicide is not a topic I want to avoid.

At the time of my brother’s death, my children were 9 and 6. While I did not disclose specific details, I carefully explained to them that sometimes people are sick, even when they don’t show physical symptoms like coughing or fevers. That there are illnesses in the brain that affect how you feel. That my brother had one of those illnesses, and unfortunately, he ended his own life because of it.

As my kids have gotten older, we’ve discussed what normal sadness and gloom are like, and how they differ from serious depression and despair. I’ve described the signs and symptoms that should prompt a person to go to a doctor, and how mental illness is very treatable, even though recognizing the need to seek help can be an enormous hurdle.

I talk to my kids about depression and suicide to potentially save their lives.

Recently my tween daughter asked me about the semi-colon tattoo on my wrist. I told her the tattoo is a daily reminder that, despite my own struggles with depression, my life is meant to continue—the way a semi-colon continues a sentence. The semi-colon represents me choosing to live my life and share my story.

Hopefully by talking openly with my kids and with others, I can also start a larger discussion.

In the years since my brother’s death, many people have been uncomfortable discussing suicide with me. I reassure them that I welcome the discussion. I am incredibly sad and heartbroken, but I am not ashamed of how he died. And I want more people to understand the horrible disease that took him to such a tragic place.

Unfortunately, for many people who suffer depression, it is difficult to talk about openly. There is a stigma attached to the illness. I talk about depression and suicide to make it easier for other people to do the same. I talk to help promote awareness. I talk to help remove that stigma. I talk to help break down the barriers that prevent people from seeking help.

In honor of my brother and my friend’s husband, I will keep talking to my kids about depression and suicide. I hope others will join me.

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