Sometimes things hit different.
I can remember a couple of times in the 4 years of my son's high school career that his school offered trainings, discussions, and speakers to educate parents and students about suicide. I vividly remember thinking "I'm so grateful that this school offers this opportunity. Good for them!" I myself, however, never seriously considered attending these talks, never insisted that Jack listen to what they had to say, and never felt the need to talk to my children about suicide. Why? The answer is simple:
Because suicide happens to other people. Not to us.
Considering the amount that we talk about suicide, it's hard to believe that it is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., especially among 15-29 year olds, according the WHO. As my children would tell you, I talk about health and wellness constantly (I don't, really, but that's what they would tell you). If you asked them how much I talk about suicide, they would tell you that I don't talk about it at all. And they would be right. It's not because I don't think it is an important topic or a "real thing". It's because I have been delusional in thinking it doesn't/won't/can't happen to my family or friends. Until it happened.
That's when it hit way different.
When I got the news a couple of days ago that a dear friend of our family had passed away from suicide, I did not know what to think or do with myself. I was working from home, kids were at school and Ben was at work. I called Ben to tell him the gut wrenching news. Somehow, the words came out of my mouth to deliver the information, but my emotions could not recognize the message to know how to feel. I felt paralyzed, in shock. No one saw this coming. Our friend was funny, outgoing, and engaging. A wonderful parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child. Just like us. Suicide doesn't happen to us. But it did.
I decided to take a walk. I desperately wanted to wrap my head around this. The safe, warm, fuzzy, ignorant, suicide-happens-to-other-people bubble I had been living in suddenly burst. The tears began to flow as I unabashedly walked around my neighborhood while crying and mourning my friend's death. I prayed for the spouse, children, and other friends and family who are mourning exponentially more deeply than I. I thought about the depth of their grief and how I would feel if I were them.
Wait. What? How I would feel if it happened to me? That's where my thought process nearly came to a halt. My brain immediately wanted to shut down.
There's another reason I have never talked to my children about suicide. It's because the thought of it is quite literally incomprehensible.
Perhaps in a subconscious attempt to distract myself from allowing the feelings that would arise if I thought about it too much, still walking and crying, I began to think about superficial conversations I've had in the past with people about suicide. If these conversations come up at all, they never seem to last long. I did, however, recall talking to a friend regarding her concern about her son's anxiety. I had asked if she felt she needed to check in with him to see if he's having thoughts of hurting himself. She responded, "No. I think I'm afraid if I do that, it will put the idea in his head." I remember thinking 2 things:
1) I don't think that's really how it works.
2) I completely understand what she's saying.
Think about ALL the health and safety conversations we have with our kids. Like talking about Stranger Danger and what they should do if a stranger approaches them. Heck, my family had an elaborate plan and a "secret word" for that situation. We've had conversations about what to do if the house catches on fire, if they're out somewhere and hear gunshots, and if they're home alone and need help. But never about suicide.
I felt so helpless while I was walking and crying. I thought about all the things I could not do. I could not bring our friend back. I could not ease the suffering of the loved ones in unimaginable pain. Yet I wanted to do something. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.
I can talk to my children about suicide. I can tell them what to do if they are in a moment when they are personally faced with it-- where to go to find safety-- just like the plans we've made if there's a fire or if they hear gunshots. So, that's what I did. I walked home and immediately opened my laptop. I knew if I didn't do it right then, I wouldn't do it at all. As tears fell on my keyboard, I typed faster and faster to get the words out before succumbing to the overwhelming urge to erase the email and recreate my warm, ignorant, suicide-can't-happen-to-us bubble. It was the scariest, saddest email I've ever written. I knew that if there was any chance that typing these words would plant the seed in their minds to make them consider suicide, then it was all the more reason they needed to hear what they should do when that happens. I hit send before I could talk myself out of it.
Here's what I wrote (I have changed some words to protect anonymity, but everything else is the same as what they read):
Jack and Zephyr,
Today is a very hard day for Dad and me. A friend of Daddy's called us today to let us know that a very dear, long-time friend of ours committed suicide. We are okay, but we are very sad. Those close to our friend, however, will never be the same. The parents, sister, and other family and friends will never be the same. The spouse and children will never be the same. With time, we hope that they will go on to live their lives and eventually be happy, but they will carry profound pain with them that will never fully go away.
I need to tell you both something. I am speaking to you as adults because I know that you can both understand this. I will also talk to Jules, but in a different way that she can understand because she is younger.
Life is hard. For EVERYONE. No one gets a free pass without some amount of struggle or pain. As much as some people try to project an image that they have a perfect life with no problems, it does not exist. They are lying. Remember what I've always told you? "Everybody's got something." It's true. This doesn't mean that life is not joyful-- it is! I love life, but that doesn't mean that I have not struggled. Same for Dad. Because everyone has challenges and that is NORMAL. Life is easier when we know that.
You will at times experience emotions that don't feel good like sadness, anger, heartache, worry, feeling judged and unaccepted, shame, guilt, disappointment, fear, loneliness, jealousy (I could name more, I'm sure you could, too). These are very normal, human emotions that every person feels at some point. It is healthy and good to identify when you feel these emotions and to know that you are just like everyone else who feels them, too, from time to time. Talking about them is tremendously helpful. When you acknowledge them, allow yourself to feel them and know that they are okay, they generally pass. Life has many more happy moments than sad ones.
It's when you feel like these emotions never go away, that you are always sad, lonely, afraid, angry, etc., that they become a problem and are no longer normal. I need you to promise me this: If you ever feel that you cannot manage these challenging emotions, if you ever think that you will never feel happy, if you ever start to think that the only way to stop these tough feelings is to end your life, then you MUST tell someone and that person needs to help you get help. I don't care who you tell, but you need to ask that person for help. Of course, you can always tell Dad or me, but telling someone else that you trust is fine, too. You will be met with love and support, not judgement. We all need help sometimes. What you're feeling will not last forever, and others can help you through it. I need you to promise me that. We will never know the different reasons that people who end their lives think that it was the only way they could stop the emotional pain they were in. People who were closest to our friend say they had no idea that anything was wrong. What I know for certain is that our friend was loved, important, and a valuable person on this earth. You are both loved beyond words and measure. You are both extremely valuable and important. You are not on this earth by accident. You are talented and uniquely gifted unlike anyone else. You are here for a reason and a purpose or you would not be here. That is the truth. Even when life feels hard, that is still the truth. I'm sure you can tell by now that I am upset by the news of our friend's death. And I am deeply sad for the family, close friends, and children of our friend. As I said, they will never be the same. Just as we would never be the same if we lost one of you. It is unimaginable to think of. YOU also have the ability to help someone if you suspect that they are feeling hopeless. Ask your friends if they are okay if they seem sad. Let them know you care, that they matter, that their feelings are valid and you know this because you have those tough feelings sometimes, too. If they say that they are feeling they might hurt themselves or are thinking about ending their life, get them help from someone who is trained to know how to help them. Death cannot always be prevented, and that is sad, but it's a reality that we can accept. No one lives forever. But ending your life because you are experiencing emotions that feel too big for you to handle alone is not okay. There is always someone who can help you through, and you won't feel that way forever. You must ask for help. I need you to respond to this and say, "Okay, Mom. I promise." I promise that to you, too. If I ever feel hopeless and have thoughts of ending my life, I will tell one of you or someone I trust. I love you both beyond what words can express. Momma
I imagine someone else could say it better. I did not research "what to say/not say to your children about suicide". I might have said something in the "do not say" column. I don't know. All I know is that it was awful to write, I spoke from my heart, and it was the right thing to do.
I will miss my friend. I will forever pray for the hearts of those who are devastated by my friend's passing. It has forced me to think about suicide differently. No one is immune. I urge you to talk to your children about it, just as you do about anything scary that can happen. Yes, it is hard. If you want to use my email and change the words to make it applicable for your children, then do that. And if YOU need to hear these words, please take them to heart.
You are loved. You are valuable and needed or you wouldn't be here.
That's the truth, even if it doesn't feel like it right now. This pain won't last forever. Help is here for you- but you MUST let someone know that you need it.
Promise me. I promise that to you, too.