When a Parent Dies by Suicide, How Are The Children Told

February 15, 2019

When a parent dies by suicide, how the children are told casts a permanent shadow on their understanding of life and loss.

A frayed leather wallet. A broken watch. Some coins. A ballpoint pen missing a screw. For 11-year-old Maddy Reid, this was all that remained of her soft-spoken accountant father … an assortment of 59-year-old George Reid’s meagre belongings emptied onto the kitchen table. ‘It’s gruesome, I know, but I think they still had his blood on them.’

And then there was the music; those hauntingly familiar tunes. ‘For years growing up, there were songs that immediately made me think of him,’ said Maddy, now a 49-year-old artist living in Cornwall. ‘Like, this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know that old song Big John? It’s such an old one, a Western. Dad grew up in Belfast but he was born in Georgia, and he seemed to have an American influence in his musical taste.’

On 25 March 1980, Maddy and her brother, Philip, 14, had just got home from school when there was an unexpected knock at the door. There, were two policemen, solemn-looking, hats removed, asking to speak with their mother. ‘You just think, what’s going on? What’s this about?’ said Maddy. ‘Mum goes into another room with them. They leave, she comes back into the kitchen, sits down at the table and – I’ll never forget this – she has that clear plastic bag with my dad’s stuff in it. “Right,” she tells us. “Your father’s dead. He’s killed himself. He jumped in front of a train. Here’s what he had on him.”’

It was the only time her mother would ever speak openly of her father’s suicide.

Globally, close to a million people a year kill themselves, and many times that number attempt to do so but fail. That’s a conservative estimate, too; for reasons such as stigma and prohibitive insurance claims, suicides and attempts are notoriously underreported when it comes to the official statistics. Roughly, though, these figures translate to the fact that someone takes their own life every 40 seconds. Between now and the time you finish reading the next paragraph, someone, somewhere, will decide that death is a more welcoming prospect than another breath in this world, and will permanently remove themselves from the population.

The specific issues leading any given person to become suicidal are as different, of course, as their DNA – involving chains of events that one expert calls ‘dizzying in their variety’. But one sobering fact never varies: many of these people are parents. Some, to young children. For a vulnerable kid trying to make sense of such a catastrophic loss, it can be devastating.

Compared with those who’ve lost a parent to other forms of sudden death, children bereaved by suicide are more likely to suffer adverse outcomes. Many of these, such as drug addiction, relationship problems and their own suicidality, are lifelong issues. The prognosis is especially dire for those who aren’t provided appropriate support, or for whom a conspiracy of familial silence hangs over the suicide, as though it is something to be ashamed about.

This sense of being judged about suicide isn’t just the imagination of oversensitive survivors, either. It’s empirically real. Back in the 1960s, the American psychologist Richard Kalish administered a ‘social distance scale’ to measure college students’ prejudicial attitudes towards a real hodgepodge of stigmatised communities. One of the questions in the scale was: ‘Would you willingly go out on a date with [this type of person]?’ Participants were more willing to date someone dying from cancer, or members of a marginalised ethnic or religious group (in this old study, black people, Mexicans and Jews), than they were to date someone who’d attempted suicide. On the other hand – and I’m not sure if this qualifies as good news, exactly – they were more willing to go out on a date with a suicide-attempter than a Nazi.

And when Kalish’s study was replicated 25 years later by the psychologist and suicide expert David Lester in New Jersey, the trends were identical. Furthermore, when asked: ‘If you really loved him/her, would you marry someone who had attempted suicide in the past year?’ only 33 per cent of people said yes.

Such findings might sound reasonable for pragmatic romantics (after all, the best predictor of suicide is a previous attempt and, all else being equal, giving one’s heart to someone at significant risk of suicide is a high-stakes emotional wager). However, since such prejudice can extend to the close family members of those who actually die by suicide, it’s easy to see why so many are wary of acknowledging the suicide of a parent. One woman who’d lost her father to suicide six years prior wondered aloud: ‘Will the stigma be attached to the children, to the children’s children, and to their children in turn?’

Yet such silence, no matter the intention, comes at a cost for children scrambling to repair the sudden rift left by a parent’s unexpected, and deliberate, exit from everything they know. In the bereavement literature, suicides are often linked to symptoms of ‘complicated grief’: a medical term that refers to grief and mourning that lasts longer than six months and significantly impairs the individual’s daily functioning.

‘She didn’t come out and say we’re not allowed to talk about your father,’ explained Maddy about her mother’s handling of the situation. ‘But it was made clear that it was a taboo subject, and we were to build a wall around ourselves and forget about it. It was horrendous, because the support just wasn’t there … She went through and burned all the old photos. She just wanted “it” gone.’

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