Ask Richard: Telling My Daughters Their Father Committed Suicide

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

I need help so much. My ex husband committed suicide on New Year’s. Our two daughters, age 9 and 12 were told he died. I don’t know how to tell them that he committed suicide. Some people have said not to tell them, but they will find out because everyone is talking about it.

We had been divorced for about three years. He had remarried, and his relationship was pretty good with the girls. He didn’t have a history of any psychological problems or alcohol abuse, but he was drinking the night he took his life.

I am an atheist and I can’t pretend to not be. I am the only one I know of around me. There are no atheist groups in my area, so I feel kind of isolated in that respect. I live in a small town in the Midwest, where everyone else around me believes in god. Even all the counselors we could go to try to bring it up. The free counseling nearby is mostly religious. Financially I am relying on my boyfriend right now while I go to school, but I can afford some therapy.

I am beside myself with the grief that I don’t know how to comfort my children with this. I have people saying I should tell them that their dad is with god and he’s ok now. I don’t know what to do.

Dear Kimberly,

I think you and your daughters would best benefit from seeing a counselor more than the advice that I will give you here, so the first thing I’ll offer is a resource for finding a strictly secular counselor who will not give you any religious trips. The Secular Therapist Project is a nationwide data base of qualified and experienced therapists who are atheists or non religious, and who certify that they do not introduce religious issues into their therapy process. They also use therapeutic methods that are empirically based, shown to be effective. I have been on the provider vetting team from the start, so I am confident of the quality of the counselors on our list. The only problem is that we’ve recently started the project, and we only have 92 therapists so far. But it’s worth a try to see if there is a suitable one within a reasonable distance of you. A few also provide online counseling via chat or video conferencing. Everything is kept strictly confidential, as in all proper therapy settings.

If that is not of help to you, use the phone book or the internet to find a licensed counselor in your area. They usually don’t advertise their stance on religion. So when you make the first call and you’re talking to whoever is taking the first basic information, don’t be shy about saying at the beginning that you’re an atheist, and you need a counselor who will not introduce any religious issues into the therapy. If they cannot categorically and unambiguously assure you of that, ask them if they have any referrals to such a therapist. Then thank them and move on to the next phone number. I know that’s a difficult way to have to do it, but I’ve found good therapists that way. It’s just more work.

There is also Grief Beyond Belief, a Facebook site that offers faith-free support for non-religious people grieving the death of a loved one.

Whether or not you can find a counselor to talk to, Here is what I advise:

You should definitely tell your kids the truth that he committed suicide. It will be better that they hear it from you, without the misinformation or negative judgementality that other people might include.

The girls’ initial questions will probably include why did he decide to commit suicide. He did not have a known history of depression or other serious psychological problem, but of course such things can go undetected and undiagnosed for a long time. People often cover up their illnesses. Men often conceal the feelings they have in depression, thinking those feelings are “weakness.” They don’t realize they’re actually sick, not weak.

So although an undiagnosed depressive disorder is a likely cause, you will have to tell your daughters that you’re not sure why he decided to take his own life, but you can offer a possible explanation.

Tell them something like what I’ve written below. I’ve written it in a way that I think a 9-year-old and a 12-year-old can understand. You can put it in your own words, or you can just read it, and tell them that you talked to a counselor who wrote this so they could understand. Read it over to yourself so you know if you want to change anything or leave anything out. You know your daughters and the situation best.

The most important thing to remember is that your dad loved you both very much.

He might have had a mental illness called depression. This does not mean that he was crazy. It happens to many very good, sane people. Depression is when a person has very strong feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and sometimes has other problems like tiredness, trouble sleeping or too much sleep, not wanting to eat, or eating too much. But sometimes depression is different from being sad about something bad that has happened. Sometimes nothing very bad has happened in the person’s life at all.

Our brains make chemicals that help us to feel all our feelings. Happiness, sadness, fear, anger, calmness, and all the others are caused by brain chemicals. With depression, a person’s brain starts making too much of the chemicals that make us feel sad and hopeless, and the brain gets stuck doing that. The person can’t shake it or talk himself out of it, can’t just cheer himself up. These feelings build up slowly, so the person often doesn’t realize that he’s sick. He just feels convinced that things are awful and hopeless, even when things are actually okay.

Imagine wearing very dark sunglasses. There are many bright colors around you, but all you can see are dark shades of gray. This is kind of like what a depressed person’s brain does to their mood. It makes everything seem to be dark, sad, and hopeless.

Sometimes the depression gets so bad that the person is driven to want to die. They can’t help it. They’re stuck in a deep, awful mood, and the only solution they can see is to try to die. And so this is probably what happened to your dad. He got sick with an illness called depression, and he died of it, by committing suicide.

Remember that he loved you both very much. His wanting to die did not have anything to do with not loving you enough or anything like that. He got an illness, and he couldn’t help himself, and he died of it.

Kimberly, I don’t know the details of how your ex-husband committed suicide, but you should be prepared for one or both of your daughters asking you how he did it. If it was violent or gruesome, or if you think telling them the exact method will be too upsetting for them at their present age, you might want to have a less upsetting thing to tell them. The problem is that they will eventually hear the truth. So I think you should tell them as close to the truth as you can, given their age and their temperament, and your sense of how they will react. You can tell them more as they get older if it’s necessary and appropriate.

If you want to always be their go-to person for when they are troubled, always give them the truth balanced with lots of love. Give them complete permission to talk about any feelings they have, even anger they might have at their dad.

They might have questions about an afterlife. “Is Daddy in heaven?” These could come spontaneously from them or from things their religious relatives or friends say. If they ask you your opinion, be truthful. You can say “I don’t know, and although people hope so, nobody really knows even if they think they do.” This is truthful, regardless of what you also say about your own belief or disbelief.

This can be the beginning of your helping them to grow to think for themselves and to carefully examine their thoughts rationally. Explain to them that often people believe in an afterlife because it makes them less sad about someone who died, but feeling better does not mean something is true, and there are other ways to feel better about losing a loved one.

Help them to see that their Dad can “live on” in a way by their remembering the fun things they did with him, the things they liked about him, and the good lessons they learned from him.

Perhaps you could work with your daughters on a scrap book called “We Remember Daddy.” All of you can fill it with photos, drawings, written memories and stories, and small objects that can be pasted in. This can be helpful for all of you to heal your grief as well as to help you remember him.

As for support from atheist friends, keep looking. Try Meetup groups. They might be too far away for frequent participation, but it’s a start. One contact there might lead you to someone who lives closer to you, and from there you might be able to build a small local circle of friends with whom you can relate openly and frankly.

I hope that you and your daughters will be able to find all the various kinds of support you need, and that your healing together brings you all closer together. Please feel free to write again to let us know how things are going.

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.