A tough conversation
"Why are you sad, Mum?" my daughter asked. I was watching the news and tearing up - yet again - at the untimely death by suicide of Robin Williams.
"Because a man died today," I said. "He was a big part of my life."
"Did you know him?"
"No, but he was very famous, and I felt like I knew him. And he died in a very sad way."
"How did he die?"
And that is the question. How does one explain suicide to a child? It is a concept that many adults do not understand. I log onto social media and I despair at some of the comments and attitudes.
He had so much to live for.
If only he knew how much he was loved.
If only he could have hung on.
I don't know the inner workings of Robin Williams' mind. None of us do. All we know is that he chose to end his life. And people choose to end their lives for different reasons, but ultimately the base cause is the same - people choose to end their lives because they want to stop the pain, not because they want to stop living.
It is incredibly challenging explaining this notion to a child. One of my kids in particular has a fair amount of teenage angst, and I do not want to ever give that child the idea that suicide is an option. I do not ever want my children to associate 'being in pain' with 'choosing to die'. Teen suicide is a real and present danger in our society, and I want my children to believe that there is always hope, that pain will always end, that things are never dark enough to justify ending it all.
So how do I balance this with being respectful of the choice made by Robin Williams? Because I do respect his choice. He was clearly in a world of pain, and felt that he had no alternative but to end his suffering. Depression creates such blackness, such a prison of agony, that there is literally no hope. There is no joy, there is no love, there is no future, there is just unrelenting pain. I need to acknowledge this to my children, because to deny it would be to deny the truth of so many sufferers of depression. I need to acknowledge this to my children, so that they can grow into empathetic adults.
And it is important to be honest with our children. As Sue Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia, explains, "Talking about suicide is an essential conversation at any age. If it is not explained the child may get the wrong idea about what they overhear in adult conversations and/or see in the media. Talking with your child in a safe and supportive way will not only help them process emotions they are feeling but also reinforce the importance of talking to someone they trust."
And so I answered my kids. "Robin Williams had a terrible pain in his mind. The pain in his mind and in his soul was so great that he couldn't feel anything else. He chose to end his life because the pain was too bad for him to keep living. It was as bad as the worst physical pain. It was the only way he could stop it."
"What if I get a pain like that?" my youngest asked, with big, wide eyes staring at me.
"You won't," I said. "But if you do get any kind of pain anywhere, we will go to the doctor and get help and fix it before it gets that bad."
It was a lie. I can't guarantee my children won't suffer terrible pain. But they are young, and whilst I need to be as honest with them as possible, it is even more important that I make them feel safe and secure. There is plenty of time for my kids to deal with the stark reality that life holds no guarantees, and that bad things can happen to good people - even them - at any time.
Still, the chances are that my kids will be okay. The chances are, we will all be okay. As tragic as is the news of Robin Williams' death, there is still love and laughter and joy in our world. He, more than anyone, showed us that. And this - the love and the laughter and the joy - is what I really want my kids to remember.
For help in New Zealand:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or free text 234 - Provides 24 hour telephone and text counselling services for young people
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 - Provides 24 hour telephone counselling.
Tautoko: 0508 828 865 - provides support, information and resources to people at risk of suicide, and their family, whānau and friends.
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)
If it is an emergency or you feel you or someone you know is at risk, please call 111
For information about suicide prevention, see http://www.spinz.org.nz.
Sydney Morning Herald