Talking to my son about suicide was never going to be easy. But talking to my son about suicide when someone he actually knew died by his own hand is much, much worse. I discovered this to be the case when my teenage son’s close friend’s brother committed suicide some weeks ago.
My son and I have what I consider to be a better than average relationship when it comes to parent and teen relationships. We can really talk about the issues that affect him because he knows I research and write this blog and that I understand how teens feel about things. He knows that when he tells me stuff, I’ll get it.
(It also helps a lot that I let him have an evening Purim party in our home, which meant some beers were imbibed under watch of an older brother. I earned mother of the year award from my son and his friends for that particular deed, though probably not from any parents or parenting experts! After that, even my son’s friends felt they could behave like regular teens around me. They knew I wouldn’t judge.)
But when my son’s friend’s brother killed himself, I, the parenting expert, was not sure what to do. I only knew that I must open the conversation: the conversation about suicide. This is exactly what I did.
I wanted my son to know, first and foremost, that there is NOTHING he can’t say to me. I wanted him to know this because the boy who killed himself was well-liked and not considered to be particularly troubled by his friends. He was holding in his feelings of despair, trying to pass for normal. It became too much for him and he ended his own life.
I don’t want that to happen to my son.
So I told him he can tell me about anything that is bothering him. And so he immediately did. He told me of a mild hygiene/health problem which embarrasses him greatly. His friends tease him about it.
I knew the issue he was describing was not a serious one. But I knew that to him, the issue was serious indeed. I knew it was affecting his emotional well-being. So I took him to a doctor and made sure we took care of the problem to my son’s satisfaction.
Doing so goes to credibility. My son saw it demonstrated: he could tell me something embarrassing and not only would I not laugh, but I would do my best to help him.
I hope this gives us some insurance in future about my child’s ability to confide in me and seek help.
It was also necessary to discuss how my son would behave at the funeral, his first ever. The fact that his first funeral was for a boy just a few years older that had taken his own life made it more emotional, more difficult than it might otherwise have been. At the same time, all my son’s peers were going to be there, along with his teachers and educators. In the end, it was actually a massive funeral: our entire community was there as well as hundreds of people from outside the community. The large turnout cushioned things, made it feel like we were all coming together around this thing, to show our respects and comfort the family.
My son had questions. He wanted to know how to comport himself at the funeral and during the condolence call. He wanted to know if the outfit he’d chosen was suitable. Coaching him through the details and customs associated with a funeral was easy and comfortable. Watching him deal with the reality of the condolence call to his friend, the sibling of the boy who killed himself, was more difficult.
I knew my son did not want to make the condolence call, but knew it was the right thing to do. I watched him wrestle with the idea. I offered to go with him when I went to see the parents. He discussed things with his friends and it was decided they’d go as a group. This seemed like a sound plan.
A Google spreadsheet was circulated in the community of things to provide for the family, food-wise and cleaning-wise. One of the items they needed was a premium brand of ice cream, two pints a day, which it was felt would comfort the brothers of the suicide. I let my son see that this was what I chose to purchase and bring to the family. I wanted him to see that different people are comforted by different things and that we all need to endeavor to support and help them in this.
At the funeral, the mother of the suicide gave a eulogy. She was composed and dignified. She said she was offering not words of parting, but words of explanation. It was difficult to listen to what she felt she needed to say and it was especially difficult to hear her final words to her son: “It’s okay. You did what you needed to do.”
I understood that these were the words of a grief-stricken mother forced to bear the unthinkable. But it was not something I felt the hundreds of vulnerable, insecure adolescents in attendance should hear in relation to suicide. Suicide is NOT okay. No one needs to kill himself. There is always recourse for the troubled and depressed. There is always a way forward.
Suicide is terribly wrong, on every level.
Life is a gift, a value one should hold dear beyond everything. Even a soldier attempts to serve his country with minimal loss of life, even if it means he loses his own in the attempt. Life is the value supreme.
After the funeral, I spoke to many mothers in our community and saw they had also been disturbed about our teens hearing those final words of the grieving mother of a suicide. I wanted to know: what can we do about the effect of hearing those words? What can we as a community do about this?
I began to make calls. I called the community center and spoke to the liaison of all the area youth groups. I called my son’s high school and spoke to the head of the psychology department of our local school system. I was polite but firm, describing the issue as I saw it and asking: how are you handling this?
The educators, youth group leaders, and psychologist I spoke to appeared to share my concern. Discussions were held with the kids in local youth groups and in local classrooms. I was told that more conversations would be held as an ongoing discussion. The issue was raised at the next parent-teacher meeting.
I did not hide any of my activities from my son. He knew I was speaking to parents and making phone calls. I wanted him to see my concern. I also let him know how it would feel if he committed suicide, how his father and I would never fully recover, would never be the same.
I think–I hope–he saw our deep love through our expressions of concern and worry.