Yesterday, my four-year-old son and I were looking through a box of old pictures. When he saw one of my mother and I, when I was about the age he is now, he asked a question I’ve been anticipating for years, but was somehow unprepared to answer.
Where is Grandma Sue now?
“Well,” I said, “Grandma Sue is an angel.”
My son only knows death as the process by which one becomes an angel. I am not a religious man, but “Grandma Sue is an angel” was better than “Daddy doesn’t know,” and infinitely better than, “Grandma Sue died by suicide.”
“I know,” he said. “But why did she die?”
I didn’t want to lie, but couldn’t possibly broach the subject of suicide, not yet. After about 20 seconds, I figured out a gentle, but honest answer.
“Well…Grandma Sue was sick, and she didn’t get to the doctor in time to get the help she needed.”
I’ve heard the best way to learn something is to teach it. Explaining the loss of my mother in a way a four-year-old could understand helped me make more sense of it, and brought me a degree of peace I hadn’t experienced in the 20 years since she ended her life. It’s one thing to know suicide is one piece of a complex mental health puzzle, but it’s quite another to fully grasp what that says about the losses we’ve endured.
“Why she didn’t go to the doctor?” my son asked.
“Sometimes people don’t know they are sick, or they think they can get better by themselves. That’s why, if we don’t feel good, we should always let someone know.”
And that’s how I started what I hope will be a lifelong conversation with my son about family, love, and the importance of self-care.