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.

  • Atheist Diva

    When I was 10, my father was diagnosed with leukemia. I overheard the news when my grandmother was talking on the telephone, and I knew what it meant. It turns out that if I hadn’t overheard, there’s a good chance that my parents wouldn’t have told any of us about it, which would have been an enormous mistake. Communicating the truth is important.

  • Rich Wilson

    I know of two cases in which adults tried to withhold major bad news from children, and both cases the withholding turned out to be bad. It has to be done with love, and honesty.

  • Jon Peterson

    Richard, you handle some really tough subjects. I hope I’ll never find myself needing to write you, but I am very thankful that you provide this free assistance to people.

    You’re a good man. Thank you!

  • Tony Brabander

    My dad committed suicide when I was 10 years old (my sister was 8). My mum told us the truth. It’s amazing how much you can handle even at a young age.

    I think if I was told later on in life I would have to grieve twice.

    My father was abusive and I grew up around violence. He killed himself when my mum finally left him. I had already grown much quicker than I should have. Maybe that helped my mum with her decision to just tell us what happened.

    I’ve been an atheist since I was around 8 years old so I didn’t ask the heaven questions. Mine were things like ‘didn’t dad love me?’, ‘why did he do it?’, ‘did it hurt him?’ etc

    I suppose you should do what feels right for you and your family. Counselling would be a good idea. I have recently sought counselling myself as I’ve suffered with depression the past couple of years. I wish I had treatment earlier as I am now twenty-five years old.

  • Ibis3

    My father died when I was 8, and I’m so glad that I was told right away how he died. I wish I had been told at that time as many details as possible, because it’s such an awkward subject to bring up out of the blue as one gets older. I still don’t know the exact details (he was in a car crash is all I know).

  • Ibis3

    One other thing (if anything can be added to your great reply, Richard): please don’t underestimate your kids’ ability to understand what’s going on. I don’t know how many times I overheard adults say, “oh she’s too young to really understand”. Uh, no. I got that Dad was gone. I just didn’t react the way they expected me to (not sure exactly what they expected).

  • Marco Conti

    I think I have one ore piece of advice. In their community it is very likely that someone may bring up their belief (in the manner of a taunt) that their Dad is in hell.

    I would try to preempt that if at all possible. It would be best if it comes as a response to their direct question, but maybe she can find a way to approach the subject without inflicting further damage or making them think about it in the first place.

    Personally, I would simply say that Hell doesn’t exist. No one has ever been able to prove it exists and people that bring it up do so because they are malicious or mistaken.

  • nathyness

    I’m a 22-year-old atheist and mental health counseling student. Dealing with religious topics in therapy is one of my biggest fears (I haven’t started seeing clients yet). I’ve gotten really good training about how to go about this sensitive topic, but I’m afraid my nerves won’t calm down until I feel a little more comfortable in my professional role.

    On a personal note, I frequently imagine how I will raise my children, how conversations on religion might go, and how I will have to explain the religious beliefs of family members in an unbiased way, without pushing them to make up their minds one way or the other. This site has really helped me formulate a clearer picture of how I might handle such conversations. And this article captures these themes perfectly, in a very easy-to-understand format. Thank you so much for using your expertise to help others, even in retirement.

    I am printing this article and saving it in my “Rainy Days” folder. Yes, I have such a folder.

  • Alexis

    I would also suggest after discussing depression, that the girls be assured that if they ever become depressed to talk with their mom. She can assure them that there is help available for them that their dad was apparently not able to find.

  • Myrmidon

    I think of all the topics i’ve read in the Ask Richard column, this one is the most difficult for me to think about. I hate to think of children in pain, asking questions like Mr Tony Brabander did.

    Dunno. Kids are a sensitive topic for me i guess.

  • Nicole Introvert

    Richard’s answer is great. It is of utmost importance to discuss depression with these kids. Depression can be hereditary and these kids need to know the symptoms and know they can come forward if they feel any of them. My suicidal thoughts started at age 10. Kids are not too young for the truth.

  • Mark Heil

    My father committed suicide when I was 4 years old (with 2 year old and 9 mo. old. brothers). At that age I was far too young to understand what happened, us kids didn’t even go to the funeral. When I was 9 or 10 years old my mom had a long talk with me explaining, to the best of her abilities, what had happened. You’re right in advising to include a discussion of depression and mental illness on a children’s level. Fortunately we know a lot more about depression than we did in 1970 when my dad died so there should be a lot of resources available. I am sure there are books and websites written on a child’s level to make available that the kids can explore on their own pace. I probably would have benefited from more outside counselling since I was afraid to discuss much with my mom for fear of upsetting her.

  • Mark Heil

    My father committed suicide when I was 4 years old (with 2 year old and 9 mo. old. brothers). At that age I was far too young to understand what happened, us kids didn’t even go to the funeral. When I was 9 or 10 years old my mom had a long talk with me explaining, to the best of her abilities, what had happened. You’re right in advising to include a discussion of depression and mental illness on a children’s level. Fortunately we know a lot more about depression than we did in 1970 when my dad died so there should be a lot of resources available. I am sure there are books and websites written on a child’s level to make available that the kids can explore on their own pace. I probably would have benefited from more outside counselling since I was afraid to discuss much with my mom for fear of upsetting her.

  • johnw

    I send you lots of love and encouragement from Vancouver, Canada… Realize the power of strength in this difficult time… when confronted by such difficulty I usually turn to the beauty of nature for solace… it is not comprehensible, yet, whatever we are part of, it is truly amazing!!!

  • meekinheritance

    Will you also explain about running with scissors, looking both ways before crossing the street, taking candy from strangers, etc in an unbiased way, without pushing them to make up their minds one way or another? (I’m being facetious.)

  • meekinheritance

    Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:32)

  • Pedro Lemos

    That´s actually a good bible advice. Too bad the bible itself doesn´t seen to follow it…

  • Gringa123

    Thanks for this post. Our neighbor recently died, and although he did not commit suicide, he was young and it was unexpected. My daughter is 2 & 1/2 and I’ve been researching everything I can to help me explain to her what happened in a non-scary, non-religious way. It is so hard to tell your kids something that you know will upset them, but I agree that it is necessary for them to hear it from you, with love and honesty. You want them to know that they can talk to you about it. However, I can see how it is stressful for the mom because she is likely grieving herself. Her kids may sense some of this stress and not want to bring it up for fear of upsetting her. I’d recommend that they all get some counseling together to help them all deal with their feelings and take some of the burden off of the mom.

  • Becky

    Kimberly, you apart from groups, you could check with the local colleges or universities to see if there’s a secular student alliance affiliate even if it’s not your campus. Putting out a local call on craigslist for a bookstore-based discussion group might even score some hits with atheists. We’re out there, even in small-town America! Hang in there!

  • nathyness

    Haha, very funny. Yes, you are being facetious. At least you gave a disclosure. I suppose you’re implying that growing up with religion can potentially be just as dangerous as taking candy from strangers and the like. There’s a difference between teaching kids about precaution and cultivating their intellectual growth. I won’t take any chances with the former. To do the latter, you have to present all sides, encourage them to ask questions, answer them honestly but without encouraging them one way or the other. I’m sure you know this. After all, I assume I’m talking to a fellow atheist. I’ll love my kids even if they don’t think like me.

  • Katie Hartman

    Several years ago, when I was in college, a very close friend of mine killed herself. It’s that – and the experiences that followed – that lead me to feel deeply conflicted about your advising this woman that she “should definitely tell your kids the truth that he committed suicide.” Suicide survivors/grievers are substantially more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Neither you nor I know these children or their level of resiliency. You treat the implementation of the suicide as something to be cautious about – suggesting a lie if it were too ‘gru

  • David Starner

    They aren’t the general population, though; they did have their father commit suicide. (Is that what you mean by suicide survivors?) The question is, do they find out now or later? It’s possible they already know, and unlikely they will spend their life not knowing, so I don’t see that that statistic is meaningful here.