How did your mommy die?
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide please call 1-800-273-TALK or text ‘home’ to 741-741. You are not alone.
This morning my 5 year old asked me how my mom died for the first time.
“Mom, one time I told all my friends at school that your mommy died.”
“Yeah I told them your mommy got so old and then she died.”
“Well, my mommy was older than me when she died and she was much, much older than you when she died, but she wasn’t really old actually.”
“Then how did your mommy die?”
I feel grateful for my training as a therapist and for the almost 10 years I’ve had to think about how to answer this question. I know that when speaking to children about death it’s important to speak in clear, concrete terms. I know to use words like “died” and “death” instead of “passed away” or “lost.” I also know that I can keep my answer short, truthful and age appropriate. When he needs or wants to know more, he’ll ask.
I know what to say. And still, my heart sinks.
I’ve been thinking about this question since the day my mom died, five years before my oldest child was born. I wondered what I would tell my future children, how to explain, where to begin.
Even before my children were born I was aware of the hole that would exist in their lives, an emptiness that they would not even be aware of, but that would be ever present for me. It is difficult to explain grief to a child who has known so little sadness. And then there's the suicide. I have spent years advocating, speaking out and examining my own shame and yet, there it is. In this moment it feels like a stinking carcass throw on the table between me and my son. I was able to forgive my mom for taking her own life. I'm still working on forgiving her for making suicide a part of my children's family history.
There is no changing the fact that their grandmother died by suicide. It will always be.
I know how to have these conversations and I wish we didn’t have to have them.
I take a deep breath.
“My mommy had a disease in her brain that made her very, very sick and very, very sad. She tried to get better for a long time, but she just never did. She would have loved you so much. I miss her a lot.”
August paused and looked up at me.
“Good thing that you didn’t die, Mommy.”
I laugh, feeling relieved and surprised by his comment and agree with him. I’m ready to answer more questions, but he’s moved on to discussing his favorite tv show of the week. That’s all he needs, or all he can process, for now.
He can’t possibly know that his innocent response touches something deep within me, a feeling that is mixed up with fear, shame and grief. When my mom died I truly didn’t think I could carry the pain. I didn’t know how to go on. It felt like the absence of my mother might kill me. I didn’t want to die, I wasn’t suicidal, but it felt like the loss of my mother might take me down, too. Like I might drown beneath it. My existence was entirely wrapped up in hers. She was my North Star and I rode the tumultuous waves of her life alongside her.
And then she died.
And I didn’t.
August’s words are true. It’s a good thing I didn’t die.
It’s a good thing we get to live and learn and have these conversations. It’s a good thing.
For more information about suicide prevention or to find a support group in your area visit American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website.