On this week's 'Parenting' segment on the Moncrieff show, one listener sought advice about how to tell her niece about her mother's suicide.
A warning that a sensitive issue is being discussed here.
Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist specialising in Child & Adult Psychotherapy, joined Moncrieff to answer this and other listeners' questions.
"Can you offer some advice to a desperate sister-in-law?
"Recently my brother’s wife took her own life, leaving behind her three-and-a-half year old daughter whom she adored. They were inseparable and she was always so kind to her.
"We haven't told my niece that her mam is dead as we honestly don't know how even start that conversation, and we are just saying that she's away. She cries all the time for her mammy and it’s absolutely heart-breaking."
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“That’s it, it’s absolutely heart-breaking and for all of you this is a terrible tragic loss and it’s just incredibly difficult. It’s not like life events like this come with a script that you can go, ‘I know how to do this.’ It doesn’t.
“And when we’re in our own state of loss and grief and reeling from something like this, it’s especially difficult to find the words to say it.
“And I’m really struck by the caring intent that would have come from, ‘Mammy’s away’ because my desire is to protect you from the awfulness of this. But really I can’t find the words to say it but one of the first things I’m going to say is, you have to tell her that Mammy is dead and not coming back. She’s three and a half. It’s more the how we do this than not doing it.
“Because children know when Mammy or Daddy are away; they call you, they video call you, they come back. She knows and just because they don’t understand the finality of death and what she will know immediately is that this extended waiting for a return that isn’t happening is very stressful.
“The person who made her feel safe and cared for is suddenly gone. And she cannot make meaning of this loss without knowing - and I don’t say that lightly because my huge empathy for this is going to be so difficult and you will all need to pull together to have the same story in the same way so she hears it from multiple people in a calm, clear and consistent way as much as possible.
“Bearing in mind she’s three and a half and, not able to understand the permanence or finality of death, we adults have to be very clear in our language that it is not ambiguous. That we avoid phrases or euphemisms like, ‘We’ve lost Mammy’ or ‘Mammy went to sleep and didn’t wake up’... It creates confusion because children are quite concrete and literal and, ‘What do you mean she’s lost? We should go look for her’ is the natural response to that.
“So you do need to get to a place where you have words that are really hard at the moment, ‘dead’, ‘life has ended’, ‘not coming back’. Open, honest, developmentally appropriate is always the rule of thumb with this.
“And you will know your family story, your family belief system and this little girl’s development - it might be enough to say that Mommy has died, her life is over, she won’t be coming back and support her through that.
“She may not ask you anymore than that, she may not need to hear anymore than that at this point in time. A conversation like this starts now but you will be growing and developing that narrative as she grows and develops and is ready and open to hearing and understanding more.
“And again, I think to talk about something as sensitive as suicide is especially difficult with children. But it is also especially important that we do that in a considered way with children because they will hear this. This is not something that tends to stay secret or quiet and we do want to create openness around these difficult topics so that we can understand what happened there.
“So stay honest as it maintains the trust based connection and it shows her that she can bring difficult questions to her safety network. And that those difficult questions will be answered - maybe not in the moment and you have to give yourselves permission to say, “That’s such a good question… I need to think about it and come back to you with that.” “I think you can also introduce well-known books… The Invisible String is a very well known one and it’s a really nice way for children to understand that when we’re not together in life anymore, we can still feel connected to those we’ve lost.”
Main image: 2CFNJ7J Little child girl sitting near teddy bear.