Suicide and kids
Present children a picture of the hereafter
I was raised a Catholic. Attended Catholic school for 13 years. Baptism, Eucharist, all of that. Confirmed before I even knew what I was confirming. I can’t speak for the rest with similar childhood experiences, but for me the lack of comprehension and, more importantly, lack of choice left me as an adult with a very bitter taste in my mouth with regard to organized religion. Or was that the unleavened bread?
So when I was approached with the idea of writing this piece based on a roundtable discussion with local religious leaders, that same vinegary flavor crept up my palette. I thought to myself, “I would love a byline, but this badly?”
But 10 minutes after entering the room, I realized how wrong I had been, how accessible these people were and how all my predisposed ideas were blown out of the proverbial holy water.
First, there was Michael Moran, founder and minister of the Spiritual Life Center. Not unlike Santa Claus in appearance, Moran was himself raised a Catholic. Thirty years later, he moved away from the church of his childhood and into a Unity church, with a more open theology and interfaith focus, to align better with his belief system. He sought inclusiveness, not exclusivity.
Pastor Kathi McShane of First United Methodist had an air reminiscent of a first-grade teacher, the one you never seem to forget the name of even three decades later. Before going into the seminary, McShane practiced law for 16 years, a revelation that, to me, adds another level of humanity to her character.
Next, there was Sister Hansa of the Brahma Kumaris community. She was warm and wise, and instantly made everyone feel at home in her presence. She explained her practices with the BKs as more of a university than a church, teaching what it means to be connected to the spiritual in practical ways. They seek the similarities in different theologies, leaving the essence as a universal truth.
Unlike the other clergy around the table, Sherwood Carthen, pastor at Bayside South Sacramento, described his calling to the ministry as, well, unwanted. But he felt that he was left without a choice. “How do you say no to God?”
An intimidating mountain of a man, Carthen arrived late. But it became apparent so quickly how comfortable he is to be around that the rest of us felt guilty for having eyeballed his lunch. After the laughter over the sandwich subsided, the real feeding off one another began. By the end of our discussion, either Dad’s Chunky Chicken had masked the flavor, or the bitter taste had abandoned its post behind my lips.
My adult sister recently committed suicide and now my 6-year-old daughter increasingly has been asking questions about death. I’m confused about what to tell her, not only about the nature of my sister’s death, but also about death in general. How can I nurture in her a healthy acceptance of death without fostering fear?
Carthen: Death is a negative experience for us because all we know about is life, and we don’t know about the hereafter. With young people, we try to present a picture to them that this is just the beginning. It is not the end. We just don’t have a lot of information about the second life, and so people are struggling as to how to comprehend it.
Hansa: In India, fortunately, the concept of reincarnation is very clearly accepted in family life, in the community, in culture. So we don’t have that much of that kind of fear that I’ve felt in Western culture. They have a different connotation about death and quite a lot of fear. But if I meet some Western kids, then we can share certain things that are written in the Bible and we try to help them to understand that this is a journey, and there is nothing we are losing or finishing—we are moving on. And always God protects us.
McShane: I actually do have some experience with this kind of situation. My daughter was seven when her father died, my husband. And I have had the opportunity to walk through a 6-year-old’s death as she died from cancer, and at the memorial service there were lots and lots of children present. So, I’ve thought about this one. Those experiences lead me to believe that what children need most at a time like that is safety, a sense of safety and stability, to know that they are loved, and that what seems very frightening, in part because all of the adults around them are falling apart, is nothing to be afraid of. Things can be very frightening. And, yes, it’s OK to be sad. It’s OK for adults and children to be sad and to miss the person who is gone, and to feel like it was wrong in some sense and it shouldn’t have happened, and still there is a God who ultimately will make things alright, in this life or the next. Throughout life and death we are held by a God who loves us.
Moran: I’ve had quite a bit of experience with suicides and children, and even suicides with children. I’ve found the easiest way to explain a suicide is to say your sister, your aunt, whomever it was, died of a disease. It was a sickness, just like cancer, just like heart disease; this is a disease called depression. And that God could not turn his back on your aunt or your sister, because God is a God of love. This was a disease that they had no control over. That seemed to really help people when they put it in a context of a disease and not some spiritual crime that was unforgivable.
You know, you speak in really age-appropriate symbols that God is there, just as God is here. And when your aunt crossed over, she walked right into the arms of God. Paint a visual that a child can see. And one thing that helped one little girl that was saying, “Where did she go? I can’t see her now.” Then I said, “She’s still very much alive. When your mommy leaves a room and goes into another room, you don’t see her, but you know she’s there. It’s the same way.”