Talking To My Kid About Suicide
By Lasara Firefox Allen
I recall clearly the first time I thought about killing myself. I was 14 and had been dealing with some run-of-the-mill physical health issues. Headaches, sore throats. They were relatively minor, but were wearing me down. I remember waking up one morning in a burst of physical and emotional pain — as many who experience chronic pain know, the two amplify one another — and thinking, “If it’s going to be like this, I’m not sure I’ll stick around.”
I got better from the physical ailment that was, at that moment, riding me. But the suicidal thoughts are still around, 30-plus years later.
In my early thirties, once I had been accurately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and PTSD, I was talking to my father, the bestower of the broken genes, about suicidal thoughts. My disorders are templated on his. Carbon copy. As challenging as our relationship has been — and it has been that — I found some relief in the shared qualities of our illness. Even knowing how it affected him made me feel less alone.
I wanted his input, and asked how he has dealt with the illness through the years. His advice was, “Never mention it again. Never tell anyone you are thinking of killing yourself.”
I closed down. Ended the conversation. Hung up. And felt alone again.
This isolationism had been his way of staying safe. So many in his generation were locked up, shocked without consent, medicated into oblivion, and even lobotomized. Even with the lack of support and understanding for mental illness that still exists in our culture, we really have come a long way since the 1950s.
While my father is still breathing, this method doesn’t work for most. Years of intensive therapy — and many losses of loved ones to suicide — later, I know it is better to talk about it.
This year I lost another friend to suicide. Cori, adored by many, took her life on my birthday. I know it wasn’t because it was my birthday, but I will remember her on that day now.
In her passing, Cori left me a gift, in the form of a tender opportunity to have a needed conversation with my children.
I was in the bathtub soaking, scrolling my Facebook feed while I let the salt-loaded water do its work, when I found out that Cori had killed herself.
I saw the message from a loved one and wailed out loud in shock.
My kid checked on me. “Are you okay, mom?” they asked. “My friend Cori killed herself,” I said through tears. My kid came over and gave me a hug, stroked my back while I cried.
And we talked about suicide. As a parent who is familiar with the impulse toward suicide, it felt imperative to talk with my 16-year-old, transgender, non-binary child — who also is intimate with the impulse toward suicide — about the choices we make.
When my child was 13, they told me they couldn’t stop thinking about how much easier it would be to be dead. To be “not here.” To cease.
When Cori killed herself, I told my kid that I got it. I got that Cori didn’t feel like she had a better option. I don’t blame Cori. I know that sometimes suicide feels like the best option for the person making the choice.
But it is undeniable that suicide just passes the pain around; it doesn’t end it. When Cori killed herself, a whole community was left to struggle with anger, and guilt, and sadness, and to overcome the internal voice that some of us never silence in our whole lives — the one saying, “See? It is a choice that people make.” One that I could have made at many junctures along the way. One that I still feel drawn to at times.
Days after Cori’s death, once I was through my shock and had worked my anger out to love, I had a chance to talk to Cori’s father, a Buddhist. He said he wished he could not blame her. That he believes in her agency. But that also part of him was so angry. “How could you take the gift I gave you and throw it away?” he asked Cori’s ghost as we all stood together in an old haunt — a place we had partied and chilled with Cori in years before. His heart was breaking out of his chest, and his eyes were pained and damp.
During the conversation in the wake of Cori’s death with my kid, I, too, felt a wave of awareness and deep sadness. I was a sister-mama-friend to Cori. I was a confidant, a touchstone. She sometimes called me mama when asking for advice. So while I didn’t have the claim of blood or even fosterage, I had the heart-tug of a person losing someone who had once called me mama.
Sitting with my child, with the awareness that for some of us the internal conversation with (and about) the inclination toward suicidal ideation never stops being a struggle, I asked my child, “Please don’t ever do it?”
Then I caught myself.
As someone who deals with suicidal ideation on an ongoing basis, in conjunction with major depression and bipolar disorder, I know that sometimes thinking about killing myself is the only place I find relief. Sometimes asking people to stick around just to keep us more comfortable is inhumane.
“Please don’t ever do it” is too big an ask.
So I alter my request. “Can you promise me you’ll never do it without talking to me first?” I ask this person who once dwelled in my womb. “Yes, mama,” my child says. “I promise you I’ll never do it without talking to you.”
I can’t ask for more than that. I don’t think anyone really can. I can’t find a place in myself where I feel justified or righteous in asking for a promise that this life-of-my-life will never choose to leave by their own hand. Only rightness, or hope, in the idea that they will talk to me first. That I will never be caught by surprise in this.
I believe in the right to death with dignity. I believe in agency in death as in life. I believe we make the best choices we are capable of, in all cases. (If we were capable of making better choices, we would make them.)
I also believe that we exist as systems within systems, and that when one part is suffering, all parts are affected. There is an indistinct and shifting line, or a torus perhaps, between caring for ourselves and caring for the whole. In the promise I made with my kid, we address both.
“Thank you,” I say. “And I promise, too. I will never kill myself without talking to you.”
This pact bears Cori’s name. It rests in my fingers where I commemorate her choice, our choices, in a semicolon and a heart. My older child inked them into me at our kitchen table. The semicolon means that we choose to continue on instead of ending it. I like wearing it because it creates a braver space where those who know and recognize the code may ask for support, offer recognition. We are a select club of sorts; we’re still here.
Together, we continue. Generations linked by broken genes and hard conversations. We look toward the future, and keep walking.
To reach out to someone who can help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Text “GO” to 741741.