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Until earlier this week, I couldn’t imagine that a celebrity death could hit me as hard as the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman did earlier this year. And then Robin Williams died. When I heard (i.e., read on Twitter), I had that feeling that it must have been a mistake, a misreport. For people of our generation, Robin Williams felt like our funny uncle. It didn’t seem real that he had died, and certainly not by suicide. I feel like Robin Williams was a part of my childhood—from my days watching Mork and Mindy as a kid to his movies that made me think (Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, etc.). I saw his standup as a teenager at Constitution Hall in D.C. Though I barely remember the blur that was my father’s funeral, I have a vivid memory of watching Robin Williams in What Dreams May Come the day after my dad died. Certain celebrities are woven into the fabric of our lives and, based on the outpouring of love and grief from around the country, Robin Williams was clearly one of those celebrities for so many people.
Robin Williams dying by suicide makes the feelings of the country even more complex. This may bring up the pain of previous losses or may be a trigger for our own issues with depression or suicidal thoughts. Even if neither of these is the case, we still struggle as a society to understand mental illness and make sense of a suicide death.
As we each try to make personal sense of his death, many have kids who may be asking questions about the death. It can be stressful and difficult to talk to a child about suicide when we aren’t sure what to say, or when we ourselves are grieving. So in memory of Robin Williams, we have invited one of our favorite grief friends, Sarah Montgomery LCSW-C, to share with us her expertise on talking to children about suicide. Her tips may be helpful in discussing Robin Williams’ death, and also in helping a child who has lost a friend, teacher, or family member to suicide. Without further ado, meet Sarah...
WYG: We’re lucky enough to know you in person, but for the benefit of our readers, can you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background?
Sarah: I am currently the Coordinator of Children and Family Programs at the Chesapeake Life Center of the Hospice of the Chesapeake, a program for grieving families and children in Maryland. I have worked in school-based and outpatient mental health settings, but have focused my career for the past several years on supporting families during grief and traumatic loss. My co-worker, Susan Coale, and I are currently finishing up a handbook on talking with children about suicide loss. I am also the parent of three wonderful daughters and aunt to a bunch of fabulous nieces and nephews.
WYG: It is hard to know where to begin when talking with a child about suicide. How do you recommend opening up the conversation?
Sarah: Yes, it is hard to begin to talk with kids about suicide. It is normal to be nervous or uncomfortable. If you are able, take some time to take a breath and process your own feelings first. The analogy of needing to put on our own oxygen mask before we put on our child’s is an apt one here. In this age of social media, children often find out about a death prior to their parents, so they may bring up questions anywhere at any time—in the car, bathroom or while reading a book together. We as parents may not have yet processed the news ourselves, and we may not be in a comfortable emotional place to explain it to our kids. We may find ourselves swiftly processing new information while simultaneously being asked to explain the same event to a child. I heard about Robin Williams’ death from my youngest daughter, who called me at work to chat about her day and then added, “Did you know that Robin Williams died?” She had heard about it from her older sister, who had seen it on her Instagram.
The most important element to keep in mind is to speak about the person who died and their family in a caring and honoring manner. At the same time, let the child know that if they themselves ever struggle with their feelings, there is always help available.
A suicide death of a family member or close friend will certainly lead to a deeper and more emotional conversation for both of you than a death of someone less familiar. If possible, find a comfortable place to sit and start by letting your child know that you are okay and would like to talk to them about something. For example, “David, I have some very sad news to share with you. First of all, I am all right and you will be all right. I wanted to let you know that your cousin died last night.” Talking about the death of someone less close and familiar will perhaps lead to a different conversation, but children still need the reassurance that they are safe and will have time/space to process feelings should they arise.
Talking about suicide loss with children is on a “need-to-know” basis. In the case of Robin Williams’ death, some children will not know him or know of his death. Others will just say off-handedly, “My friend posted a RIP to Robin Williams on Instagram”. However, if a child asks about how Robin Williams died, then there is a need-to-know and need to talk with your child.
WYG: I know that many of our readers have young children. Should parents wait until their child is a certain age before talking to them about suicide?
Sarah: This again is based on a need-to-know basis and a child’s questions. Most young children who have heard about a celebrity’s death will mainly be interested in talking about the actor and his life, and that it is sad that they died. Reflecting back their feelings and agreeing that it is very sad when someone dies may be as much as the child needs. However, if a child asks about how he died, that may be an entrance into talking about suicide. For example, “What I read is that Robin Williams died by suicide. Suicide is when someone makes their own body stop working.” Parents can use this as a teachable moment.
But for children of any age, parents can help build resilience and support by asking children about who they would talk with in difficult times. If they had a big feeling that they needed to share, who would they share it with? Parents can also help explore ways to self-calm in a healthy way. Starting very early on, parents can give the message that no question is off limits. We as parents may not know the answer, but we welcome all questions.
WYG: Once you have opened the discussion with your child, what are the most important things to make sure your child understands?
Sarah: This is based on developmental stage, but the most important part is reinforcing that they are safe and that you are safe. No one thing causes suicide, and suicide is a relatively rare event. We do know that usually someone who dies by suicide had a “mental illness,” that their brain was not working properly. Some explain by equating it with a heart attack: “Have you ever heard of a heart attack? Well, in this case it was not a heart attack, but a kind of brain attack. His brain was not working properly, and he chose to make his body stop working."
Also, refrain from placing blame on one particular person or one particular event. It may suffice to say that, due to complications from mental illness and other factors or for reasons not entirely understood, he felt the only way to stop his mental pain was to end his life. We always have choices other than hurting ourselves. Suicide is never the only option.
WYG: How much information is too much? If a child doesn’t ask about questions, should I say anything at all?
Sarah: Such a great question! Rely on your own parental judgment and use the rule of thumb that younger children need to know less, but—as kids mature—they are interested in more information. Follow their lead. If a child for instance does not ask about the means of death, there is no reason to share it. An analogy can be made by looking at another difficult and sensitive topic: the conflict in the Middle East. A child who has heard of this conflict may ask you what is happening. You would share to their interest level, limiting details of the more painful elements. If your child has no active awareness of the Middle East, there is no reason to bring it up.
If you hear an older teen sharing a lot of details with a younger child, you may want to practice “protective interrupting”: that is, gently letting the teen know that, though this is an important topic, they may want to continue to share when there are fewer folks around. Check in later with that teen to see if they have anything they want to discuss or process. Also, suggesting to a teen not to share graphic details about a suicide death on social media is another way of protective interrupting—or coaching.
WYG: Robin Williams was such a funny, outwardly happy guy. I imagine it could be scary for a child to think that someone who didn’t seem sad or unhappy could die by suicide. How do you address that concern?
Sarah: Gosh, another great question. First, let your child know that their question is a good one. We never know everything that is going on with someone, and many people keep their most private feelings just between them and their closest family and friends. You may want to say that you do believe he loved making movies and making people laugh. How he died does not mean that he was not funny and happy much of his life. It does mean that, at the end of his life, he struggled with mental illness; his brain was not working well, and he thought there was nothing to do that could help him. Remind them again that we always have a choice to take care of ourselves. Once again, review the folks whom they can talk with and then the things that they can do to help themselves during a tough time.
WYG: I am sure some kids will have a lot of questions about suicide. What are some of the most common questions a parent should be prepared for?
Sarah: Some of the most common questions include: “What is suicide?” “Why did he do suicide?” “Will anyone else I know do suicide?” These questions are a great entrance into reviewing with children what they and you can do if something is bothering you. “When I'm feeling sad, I like to talk with your father, my great aunt Charlotte, and folks at my church. Who are you comfortable talking with?” It is also okay as parents not to know all the answers! Saying, “What a good question” and “When I do know more, we can talk more” allows your child to know that any and all questions are okay.
WYG: You have covered some of the “dos” in talking to kids about suicide. Are there any “don’ts” we should be aware of when it comes to discussing suicide with children?
Sarah: Yes. In general, limit details about the “hows” of the suicide. It can be traumatizing to hear about the details of a death scene. The other thing to avoid is “normalizing” suicide. It is never an acceptable choice; limit adult conversation to adult conversation, because children can become anxious if they are surrounded by this discussion. Equate this to if you were talking about an airplane crash: If a sensitive child keeps hearing details about airplane crashes, they may very well think that airplane crashes are frequent occurrences and worry about traveling by air. Children cannot differentiate between what happens frequently and what happens rarely and so, if they hear a lot of conversation about a tragedy, they may become hyper vigilant and develop a fear.
WYG: If my child was a big fan of Robin Williams and seems especially upset about his death, are there any suggestions or activities you can recommend?
Sarah: You know your child the best. Any activity that your child uses to relax and center is helpful. It may be running around a park, playing Connect Four, throwing a football, or drawing together. In general, anything that can help a child bring their feelings from inside their body to outside can be helpful. I often use the metaphor of a helium balloon with children. If you keep filling up a balloon and don’t let any of the air out, what will happen? Pop of course! I then assure them that they will not pop, but—like a balloon—it is good to let some of the helium out by talking, drawing, dancing, or any other outlet. Some children may benefit from an activity such as writing a letter to the family of Robin Williams about their favorite movie or favorite character. Check in with your child periodically and as you see fit.
WYG: Bonus Question! The loss of Robin Williams has us pretty sad here at WYG, reminiscing about all the Robin Williams movies we loved. What is your favorite Robin Williams movie?
Sarah: I keep going back to Mrs. Doubtfire. I love seeing Robin Williams putting on his mask and becoming an awkward and loveable woman. I think it is a movie about love, hope, and family connection. I think Robin would want us to remember him for his life rather than his death; I will remember him as Mrs. Doubtfire.
We can’t thank Sarah enough for joining us today. After reading her great tips, you may be wondering how you can get your hands on her handbook on talking with children about suicide loss:
Suicide in the media can bring up a range of complex emotions. If you need support please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with someone online.
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