How to talk with my 8-yr old about suicide?
June 15, 2012 10:19 AM   Subscribe

How to talk with my 8-yr old about his older depressed cousin's suicide?

They didn't know eachother very well. The older one came to visit for a holiday a few years ago, and played with my kid in the snow, etc.

My brother's family was devastated when it happened a couple of months ago. Our family is physically disconnected (long, long distances), and come together once a year.

This year, when we come together, the suicide will be brought up in conversations. But as parents, we've not explained it yet to our kid.

We plan to have that talk this weekend. What I don't want to see happen is that he'll think that being in a bad mood is depression, and talk of suicide comes up. He's sophisticated enough to know the difference, but still young enough to be naive.
posted by ValveAnnex to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure I'd get into the connection between depression and suicide at that age. I might mention that the cousin hurt himself, and that sometimes when you hurt yourself very badly (in an accident or otherwise), then you die. But I think, honestly, at 8 years old, that suicide is a bit too heavy a topic to understand.
posted by xingcat at 10:23 AM on June 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Check your mefi-mail.
posted by jquinby at 10:29 AM on June 15, 2012

Response by poster: xingcat - my kid definitely understands what suicide is. I don't think he'll be saddened, as he didn't know this cousin very well. I'm more worried about how he'll perceive the topic as a way people deal with personal bad moods. But I like how you're approaching it from the idea of "hurting oneself very badly".
posted by ValveAnnex at 10:30 AM on June 15, 2012

Best answer: Approach this from the perspective of illness. The cousin died because he suffered from depression, in much the same way that someone might die because they have cancer. Only a doctor can tell you if you have depression, just like only a doctor can tell you if you have cancer. And just like cancer, most people will be successfully treated for depression.
posted by moammargaret at 10:34 AM on June 15, 2012 [22 favorites]

I think the suicide is a separate issue from the depression. You say your son knows what suicide is; did he ask you at the time you told why people would do that? If so, what did you tell him? Why not tell him the same thing in this case?

Not that I'm saying to lie to him. But presumably your explanation about why people would kill themselves satisfied him in terms of it being something that was an extreme and unusual step; so if that's the case, why not simply say that "yeah, you know how we said some people just really, really, really get so hopeless that they think that this is the only thing left for them to do? Sadly, your cousin turned out to be one of those people." That tells him what happened but still underscores that depression is a far cry from a bad mood, no?

I just get the hunch that you're more concerned about explaining the depression than you are the suicide. But if you've been able to explain what suicide actually is, that may actually give you a place to start.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:42 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmm. I might try to give him a concrete way to distinguish between normal bad feelings and depression, even if it's not quite so concrete in reality. So for example, I might say, if you sneeze every now and then, that's normal, and it doesn't mean you're sick. But if you sneeze all day for a year, then that means you have a sickness. So, just like that, if you're sad every now and then, that's a normal level of being sad for most people. But if you are sad all day, every day, for months and years, and even your favorite things don't make you happy, then that means you have a sickness. And there are medications that help with it and make you healthy again, but the person needs to be willing to accept help.
posted by cairdeas at 10:43 AM on June 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

I attempted suicide at 7 years old, 8 is definitely not too young to understand. I'd be more concerned about him making the connection between depression and suicide... Maybe focus more on the fact that he chose to take his own life instead of asking for help or reaching out to anyone, and encourage your son to talk to you about his feelings/fears/etc?
posted by myShanon at 10:44 AM on June 15, 2012

I agree, approaching it from the perspective of illness. One thing I've found helps to conceptualize it is to make a timeline kind of chart about moods. You can draw out what your moods are like (e.g., when we went to the park I felt this happy, and when your pet fish died I felt this sad) to emphasize that moods change up and down, but usually hang out somewhere in the middle. Then make a separate chart for the cousin's mood and show that the sadness was much more severe and went on for a long, long time. When you feel sad like that, even the things you love the best (and give some examples like best friends, favorite foods, going on a big trip or whatever) stop feeling good or happy. Explain that there are physical symptoms too, feeling very tired, feeling confused sometimes, not needing to eat as much or eating more than you should. Explain that part of the illness is feeling very, very sad, but even worse your mind starts to make mistakes and think it will never feel better again. When you feel that badly, sometimes it leads you to make some bad choices because you can't see any other options and it is very, very sad when that happens.

Definitely touch on the fact that everyone feels sad sometimes, but that is not the same as feeling depressed. That if someone feels depressed there are ways to treat that, just like any other sickness or injury and that most people get better. Reassure him that he can always talk to you or someone else if he feels sad and that if you or he or anyone else starts to be depressed you can help each other to get better.
posted by goggie at 10:49 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm really appreciating the responses here. I'm trying to balance monitoring of this with actual work, so I'll only be able to reply later.

Quick clarification: he has been exposed to culture via TV, books and other mediums, which we carefully monitor for appropriateness. He talks with his friends at school, which is an altogether different avenue of "life learning" beyond our control, for the most part.

So we've never had that conversation about "what is suicide?". But he understands what it is.

I think one of the best things I've seen here is the idea that doctors diagnose this, just like cancer.
posted by ValveAnnex at 10:57 AM on June 15, 2012

My friends lost a close family member to suicide. The explanation they give to their kids is that the family member became very ill and died. When questions come up, they will say that it was a disease in the brain and that many people are treated successfully, but this family member was too ill to survive. They try to treat it like cancer and other illnesses. They haven't given them the word suicide because they think that is a topic for later.

I read an article by Margaret Trudeau a few years ago. She said the new UBC mental health centre is going to be called a centre for brain health, because people are willing to fund brain health, but not mental health. I keep that in mind when explaining mental health to my kids - I talk about the brain, rather than making it sound anything like a character flaw. (Not to suggest you would make it sound like one either.)
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:19 AM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure what you should say exactly, but I applaud you for wanting to talk to your kid about this. My uncle killed himself when I was ~7. He lived a few houses away and we saw him often. I was told he died in a car accident. I found out it wasn't an accident when I was 16 from someone not in my family. I still don't even know how he did it as no one in my family talks about it. It's unfortunate and I wish my parents talked to me about it. Maybe not when I was 7, but at least some point as it's been 25 years now.
posted by disaster77 at 12:15 PM on June 15, 2012

I think you should start by saying that his cousin has died and that his mom and dad are very sad right now. Ask him what he knows about suicide, see what he says. Take your conversation from there. Be honest and age appropriate.

You can tell him that his cousin took his own life, and that it wasn't really his fault, if you want you can elaborate a bit with the illness of depression and how help is available.

My cousin killed himself after a long battle with bipolar disorder. I know what you're going through and I'm so sorry.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:32 PM on June 15, 2012

I don't know if you would want to get into this with your son but this is one way of explaining why depression causes suicide. Depression changes your brain chemistry so it gives you very strong feelings of hopelessness (usually along some combination of strong feelings of sadness, irritability, and/or not-caring). People with mild depression know that the hopelessness is just a feeling - it's not reality and they are able to get help from the doctors to fix the problem in their brain that is giving them that feeling. However, sometimes when the depression is really bad, the feeling gets so strong that people start to believe that there really is no hope and that makes them want to give up on life. It is really sad because the hope was really there all the time, it was just the illness that tricked them into thinking it wasn't.
posted by metahawk at 1:29 PM on June 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: I am blown away by the community here at MeFi. Once again, reassuring my faith in humanity. It is so good to reach out to strangers and not get idiot responses. I'll spend time tonight digesting these, discuss them with my spouse, and come up with our plan. I'll try to include a comment on how it went after the weekend.
posted by ValveAnnex at 2:18 PM on June 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have a close family member who, many years ago, tried suicide multiple times. The last time she almost succeeded. She has permanent health problems because of two of her most drastic attempts.

My son is eight. He knows that the family member used to have depression, which is an illness that causes your brain to stop working properly. He knows that this made her want to kill herself. He knows that she tried (though he has no details on the hows), and was lucky enough to fail. He knows that the illness did some permanent damage (though again, we have been vague on the specifics). He knows that now she takes medicine to keep her brain working in a healthier way.

He also knows that if he EVER, EVER EVER starts to feel awful enough that it seems like maybe dying would be a good idea, that's an illness talking, and he needs to tell someone kind and responsible immediately.

Because my family member who used to be suicidal first tried to kill herself when she was thirteen. Eight and thirteen: they are not so far apart. And depression runs in families. He needs to know. I need him to know.

The good news for me is, kids are smarter and more thoughtful than we often remember to give them credit for. My son has handled understanding depression as a terrible but treatable disease -- even as one he should be on the lookout for -- admirably well. I think your son will, too.

I am so sorry for your family's loss.
posted by BlueJae at 7:13 PM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe just tell him that his cousin had a mental illness that made him do things that didn't seem to make sense, like hurt himself, and that eventually he hurt himself so badly that he died.

If he seems to want to know more about mental illness, then go into more detail. But I probably wouldn't throw it at him all at once.

Good luck. I'm sorry for your family's loss.
posted by elizeh at 8:43 PM on June 15, 2012

Response by poster: So, in conclusion, it went better than we expected. We asked him to sit down with us, let him know that no one is in trouble, but we have to talk about something very important. Cuz kids immediately think something's wrong when you try to have a serious conversation.

We talked about cancer and the process of being diagnosed, and the work it takes to overcome it. He could relate to this, as a friend in school just lost one of her mothers to cancer this year.

We used that to support the angle on depression, how feeling sad is a feeling, not a condition. Just as pain after getting hit by a baseball is a feeling, but fades away. But with serious sadness that never goes away, you have to get a doctor to help you, because something is wrong inside your brain.

We explained that, just like cancer, a person who has this problem can fight it, and change. But sometimes they fight so hard for so long that hope starts to leave their mind. When that happens, it can be very difficult to get them to continue the treatments.

We then showed him a picture of him playing with his cousin (to bring the topic to reality), and explained that he had a very long battle with his depression illness, and that doctors around the world tried to help him (true), but that ultimately he gave up and took his own life.

That was pretty much it. We asked if he had any questions. He didn't have any, but saw me crying over a situation that I've not shown him before, and realized it was very serious, as he never really sees his parents cry when talking to him.

Later that day, he came back to one of us and wanted to know "how" he took his own life. We stated that it's understandable that he would want to know that, but it was a very private matter in his cousin's family, and should stay that way. He understood that.

Thank you so much, all of you, for the great feedback and encouragement. Without your view, we would have been less prepared for this conversation.
posted by ValveAnnex at 2:02 PM on July 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the update. You did great.
posted by moammargaret at 11:15 AM on July 11, 2012

Wow, you did a really good job, ValveAnnex. Best wishes.
posted by cairdeas at 11:19 AM on July 11, 2012

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