Trigger warning: This piece deals with talking with my kids about my sister’s suicide.
“I’m sad today,” I said to my kids.
Otto was on his iPad, creating a backstory for his latest Dungeons and Dragons character. Etta was feeding fried dumplings to Vegas, the currently favored stuffy who posed serenely in her specially-designed seat of honor in the middle of the kitchen table. The pink unicorn was apparently full, however, because it politely declined each bite, whereupon the morsel ended up in Etta’s mouth instead.
“I’m sad,” I repeated, as my stomach clenched.
I didn’t want it to be a big deal. I wanted it to be like one of Kate’s thousand little conversations, casually mentioned and repeated over time so that the lesson gradually and naturally sinks in.
But a thousand little conversations have to start somewhere.
I took a deep breath and pushed on. “I’m sad because it’s my sister Barbara’s birthday. She died a long time ago, before you were born. But I still think about her and miss her a lot.”
Otto’s fingers paused over his iPad. Etta looked up mid-bite, a little startled.
“Wait, haven’t I met her?” she mumbled through a mouthful of dumpling. She sometimes gets confused with the plethora of aunts, my sisters, who she doesn’t see very often.
“No, she died before you were born. Before Otto was born. Before I ever met Mommy.”
“How did she die?”
“Danger, Will Robinson, danger!”* my brain screamed.
Even though I had known that question was coming, my heart skipped a beat. We were getting into dangerous and forbidden territory.
Barbara died by suicide.** Even typing that sentence feels risky. (Wait, I’m actually going to write about this? And PUBLISH it?)
Mid-July, 1989. It was one of those impossibly beautiful summer mornings in Seattle that make you forget the dreary gray winters — a profusion of lush green stretching in all directions, the air fresh and cool and full of possibility.
I stood in my bright yellow kitchen with the early morning sunlight streaming through the window, the phone pressed tightly against my ear, listening in disbelief to the words I had been dreading for years: “Barbara is dead.”
My throat constricted. My breathing stopped. A far-away buzzing sounded in my ears. Shock waves of trembling began in my belly, rippling outward until my entire body was shaking, as if it would never stop.
Then, I shut down. Went numb.
We didn’t come together as a family in this tragedy. Partly because of our particular family dynamics. Partly because of the heavy societal stigma and shame attached to suicide.
Barbara’s death, and therefore her life, felt like a terrible, unspeakable secret.
In Wounds Into Wisdom, a book about healing intergenerational trauma, author Rabbi Firestone cites research indicating that unhealed family trauma is passed from generation to generation–especially when it’s suppressed and kept secret.
The therapists I consulted agree with Rabbi Firestone. They encouraged me to be honest with my kids about my family history, in an age-appropriate way.
Otto and Etta don’t need to hear explicit details about Barbara’s suicide. But avoiding talking about Barbara, because I’m afraid to say how she died, isn’t healthy— for me or for them.
It’s time to stop erasing her existence.
Etta offered another bite of dumpling to Vegas, and looked up at me expectantly. “She took her own life,” I answered simply. “She died by suicide.”
Questions about what that meant. Questions about the method. (“I’ll tell you if you feel like you really have to know, but that part isn’t important. The important part is I had a sister Barbara and I miss her. That’s why I’m sad today.”)
More questions. And then, “Why did she do that, Mama?”
I stumbled through my rehearsed explanation that there are illnesses of the mind just like there are illnesses of the body. I explained that she probably didn’t want to die so much as she wanted to end her pain. I told them that if they’re ever thinking about suicide they can always come talk to me or Kate or any of their trusted adults. I reassured them that I would never take my own life.
They listened, asked a few more questions, then went on with their day. Vegas the Unicorn went down for a nap. Otto tuned in to the latest Critical Role podcast. Snowy the dog thumped his tail hard and pawed at the back door, begging for a game of fetch.
It wasn’t perfect, but I had at last started the conversation. Barbara is no longer a taboo topic in my house.
Next time, maybe it will be a little easier.
Barbara Rose Waters existed. Her life mattered. And I miss her very, very much.
Barbara and me on her 15th birthday.
*From Lost in Space, of course!
** I’ve learned to use the phrase “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide,” as recommended by mental health professionals, to avoid the connotation of a crime or sin.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
- American Foundation For Suicide Prevention (AFSP) — Support Page
- AFSP — booklet with suggestions for helping young loss survivors
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — Family Support Group
- Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma, by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone