I was 20 years old when I lost someone I loved to suicide. He was a close member of my family, someone who had been living in our home for years before he passed.
I still remember exactly where I was sitting in my dorm room the morning I got the phone call. I remember what blanket I sat under at my desk to email my professors and ask for an extension on my finals. I remember the way my family looked when they met me in the driveway when I got home the next day. I remember the way our church loved and supported us. I remember the songs we sang, the meals we ate, and the things people said to comfort and support us. I remember the way it poured rain on the freezing December day of his funeral.
To this day, it has been the most defining moment of grief in my life. And I remember it all.
But one of the things I remember the most is the way my parents navigated the days, weeks, months, and years with us after that. Though my siblings and I were all in our twenties by then, we still looked to and needed our parents to help guide us through a deeply painful season in our lives. And they handled it with honesty, grace, safety, and love. They went out of their way to make sure we knew that no feeling was off limits, no conversation couldn’t be had, and no place wasn’t safe to talk about what we were experiencing.
Even now, almost 15 years later, they still do the same for each of us when new waves of grief come.
Though I’m not a parent myself, I do know this from experience:
A parent has a unique opportunity to inform and influence how their child will understand and navigate such an important and sensitive topic like suicide.
This was certainly true for me in my twenties, and it’s definitely true for middle schoolers. Though they may not be able to articulate it, your student is looking to you—their parent(s)—to help them navigate conversations like this one. What a privilege . . . and responsibility!
Here are just a few more details on how you can open the door for conversation during each specific part of your child’s day.
In this phase, your middle schooler will often struggle to identify and name their feelings. For many of them, it’s the first time they’re experiencing a number of emotions and that makes naming or talking about them difficult to do. But feelings of depression, hopelessness, or fear? Those feelings are especially difficult for your student to open up about. While our prayer is always that they’ll come to you or another trusted adult when they or someone they know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide or feelings of despair, the reality is that it’s a really difficult thing for them to do. That’s why it’s important that you go out of your way to equip them with the resources they might need in situations like this.
Post the number to the National Suicide Prevention Line (1-800-273-8255) in a place your child can easily see or find it. It’s a great way to make sure that they can access someone to talk to in a moment of need for themselves or someone they know. Additionally, keep the memory verse (Psalm 34:18 NLT) on display in your home. It’s a simple way to keep the hope of God in sight for your family at all times and even something to pray over your student on a regular basis.
Like we said, naming and talking about their feelings isn’t an easy thing for students in this phase to do. That’s why it’s important for you as a parent to do whatever you can to make coming to you about struggles in their lives feel a little less intimidating. We suggest coming up with a “code word” or “code emoji” your kid can use to let you know they’re struggling with their emotions, are overwhelmed with their feelings, or are hurting from something going on in their lives. They can even us the “code word” or “code emoji” to let you know they have a friend who is struggling in those ways and aren’t sure what to do or say about it.
Talk with your kid about what the “code word” or “code emoji” will be and how using it will work in your family. Make it something easy, non-threatening, and memorable so that they can simply send it to you in a text or say it in conversation to let you know something is going on in their world. And when they send or say it, be clear about what the follow up will be. Whether it’s that you’ll stop and pray for them, set a time to have a one-on-one conversation about it, or even that you’ll come pick them up or show up wherever they are, it’s important that your student knows exactly what to expect from you when they use the “code.”
Whether you realize it or not, your student is always watching you. Though outwardly they may ignore you, brush off your attempt at serious conversations, or roll their eyes while you talk, the reality is that inwardly, they’re taking it in. You as a parent are setting the tone for the way conversations will unfold in your home about every topic, but especially sensitive subjects like suicide. Your response in a conversation about something like suicide will set the tone for what’s safe and open to be talked about in your family. And as a parent, of course you want your kid to feel safe and open to talk to you if they or someone they know is struggling with thoughts of suicide.
In order to help make sure you’re as prepared as you can be should the issue of suicide arise in the life of your student, a friend, a family member, or in your community, start thinking now about what you’re going to say. Put together a personal response plan for that conversation, focusing specifically on what you want to say or do as well as what you definitely do not want to say or do should your student come to you with this issue. While you may freak out a bit on the inside if your kid comes to you with this topic, thinking ahead on how you want to respond will help you be more prepared to handle it the way you hope to if and when the moment arises.
One of the reasons middle schoolers hesitate to come forward when they or someone they know is dealing with suicidal thoughts is that they’re afraid of what will happen next. Will they get in trouble? Will anyone believe them? Will someone be mad at them? Will other people find out? Questions like these can often stop them from speaking up when the need arises.
To eliminate some of those worries, talk with your student now about what may happen should they come to you with something like this. This may be a good time to explain that if your kid is having suicidal thoughts, you’ll find them a great counselor that specializes in this type of thing. Or if their friend is struggling, share what you’ll do to help them get the support they need. Be sure to explain that no matter what, you’ll help your kid with whatever they come to you with because you love them, care about them, and value them. Nothing they say will get them or someone else in trouble. You are there to help.
Setting expectations ahead of time will help alleviate some of their anxiety if the time comes that they need to talk with you about what’s going on with them or someone they know. A quick conversation to talk through what your response will be in that scenario can go a long way in removing any questions of “What if?” from their minds.
Here’s the reality: There’s no easy way to have a conversation about something as sensitive and important as suicide. There’s no guidebook to follow or script to recite. But there is a way to make sure that you keep the lines of communication safe, supportive, and open for your child should the need to broach a subject like suicide every arise. And speaking as someone whose parents worked hard to do just that, trust me when I say it matters!