What We Told Our Daughter About Suicide

Here’s the latest from Practicing Mental Illness:

There were cops combing the neighborhood and all the kids were rushed inside.  We had to tell her something. A man from a block over had shot himself. 

I was walking the dogs and saw a few patrol cars parked in front of the apartment building just behind our house.  We live in Philadelphia and, like in any city neighborhood, to see a group of officers standing around isn’t that big of a deal. The kids were playing in the street we live on.  Our daughter is lucky.  There are 14 girls on the block so there’s always someone out playing.  Especially on a beautiful Friday evening.

Then the SWAT team showed up.

A mom got a citizen’s alert that there was a man threatening himself with a gun nearby, so all the kids were rushed into their houses. Our daughter popped inside and told us something was going on but nobody was talking about it. We played Pictionary while the officers found the man dead just down the street.  A detective who lives on the block told us about the suicide.

When everything settled down and the police called an all clear, our daughter didn’t want to go out again.  She asked us what happened.

None of the kids knew, and none of their parents were talking.

My wife and I decided to tell our daughter that a man from the apartments killed himself. She asked if we knew him, but we didn’t.  Then she asked why he did it. We told her he must have been very sad and very lonely. We told her that while it’s normal to feel sad and lonely sometimes, if it ever gets so bad that it feels like she should hurt herself she should talk to us, or a teacher or a friend.  Talk to someone.

There’s always someone to talk to.  There are even phone numbers you can call.  Unfortunately, this man didn’t reach out.

I’ve been there.  I tried to kill myself.  I know the loneliness can be so bad that it seems no one can help, and you stop talking to anybody.  Or you talk a lot but don’t say anything.  You just give up.  We have since told our daughter that.  It was a long talk with a lot of questions and long pauses. She’s still has that childhood spark of innocence, and while life gets harder with every year, for her it’s still magical. For me it’s still magical. We share that.

She asked how the man did it.  We told her he shot himself.

With a gun?  She asked.  She said that was stupid.  She thought it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard.  We told her again that he must have been very sad, and yes, it was a stupid thing to do. She said, “thank you, mommy.  Thank you, daddy.”  The other parents weren’t talking about it.  She was glad to know.  She was glad we trusted her.

At bedtime she was restless and upset.  She said she had read a scary graphic novel and she couldn’t get it out of her head.  We asked her to tell us the story.  Talking about it will make it go away. She said that can’t be true.  She wouldn’t do it.  She was trying to figure things out.  She shook and breathed heavy.

The hardest thing about being a parent is teaching your kid that it’s OK to talk.  The hardest thing about being an adult is realizing, having the confidence, that it’s OK to talk. Keeping things bottled up inside is a sure path to suffering.

Our daughter talks to us a lot, but on her time.  You can’t force someone to open up.  You have to be patient.  Parents want to be their kid’s best friend, but you can’t be, and maybe you shouldn’t be.  You just have to establish a relationship where they’re free and willing to talk.

Our daughter had a hard time settling down.  I lay with her and stayed there until she went to sleep.  The next day all the kids were outside playing again.  Ours knew what happened and was healthy for it. Every generation fears the next one is growing up too fast.  But as always, kids deal with what they can on their own time.

A man we’d surely seen out and about was gone.  Someday our daughter will understand.  But at least now she knows.  She doesn’t resent some big secret we’re keeping from her.

The next night she slept just fine.

If you’re thinking of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Getting Older With Bipolar

We’re still meeting on Zoom on Thursdays to talk about our experiences with mental illness. I’ll be there again this week, Thursday at 7:00p EST. Stop in to talk or to just sit with someone who has been there. Discuss what works and what doesn’t. Meditate a little. Please join us. You can find the Zoom link here.


For St Paddy’s Day I thought I’d turn to the Irish. In the middle ages Irish monks revisited prayer and meditation techniques used by the Desert Fathers of the early church. They used a short prayer, an excerpt from a psalm, as their point of focus. The prayer becomes a mantra and a window to greater truth as it is silently repeated and contemplated to anchor the attention. This method of meditating can be transcendent. You can find details here.