Dilemmas: Do children understand suicide?

Both Sally's husband and her father-in-law committed suicide. Now her children want to tell the truth to their own children, who are aged between eight and 14, as they keep asking questions about the deaths of their grandfather and great-grandfather. But Sally feels that they're too young to know, and that the older ones would find keeping the secret too difficult

WHAT VIRGINIA SAYS

These children smell a rat. It's really not common for kids to enquire into details of their grandfather's death, or their great-grandfather's, to grill their parents on what hospital they died at, what they died of, whether their parents were there when they died, and so on. They're on to something, there's no doubt.

Now, it could be because their parents are so evasive, and show in their body language that there's a big secret hanging around. Like the famous elephant in the sitting-room - when the entire family knows there's an elephant there, but no one refers to it - this lie is featuring hugely in the children's lives and they want to bring the truth into the open. Every time their parents give evasive answers they feel they are being lied to. And they think, if their parents are lying about one thing, what else may they be lying about? This does not make for an atmosphere of trust, nor is it a good way to bring up children.

It could also be that the children in fact know exactly what happened. Children overhear conversations hundreds of yards away; an aunt or relative could have blurted it out and then said: "Don't tell your parents I told you." They may already be keeping the secret of their own knowledge from their parents, an awful burden.

And anyway, why haven't the parents been open about it from the start? What is so dreadful about suicide? We no longer live in the Dark Ages. It is nothing but another way of dying. Would they want it kept a secret if they'd been murdered? Or had died in a car accident when they were drunk? Sometimes suicide is a brave and courageous thing to do. Sometimes it is the result of a terrible depressive illness.

To keep it secret only adds to the awful stigma; it doesn't reduce it.

Children are amazingly resilient. A friend of mine, explaining suicide to her class, because the cook had been found hanging in the school garden, found that half of them were ghoulishly fascinated. "Did you see the body, miss?" "Which tree?" The other half were very sympathetic. "He must have been terribly, terribly sad" said one little girl sympathetically.

It is extraordinary the amount of concealment that goes on around children. I recently talked freely to a godson about his mother's first husband. He had no idea she'd been married before. He was horrified. It never occurred to me that he hadn't been told. I once had to look after four children while their mother had an abortion because the baby was deformed. Again, nothing was said. The tension in the family was tangible. The children never knew why the mother spent the next few months crying. They thought it was their fault.

Is Sally worried that the children fear they may do the same, that there may be a suicidal streak in their family? If there's a depressive streak they should know about it, so that they can deal with it better than their relatives; if there's an incurable disease, again, better to know about this early so that it may be avoided. If they know that there are generations of suicides in the family, who knows how worried they may be that their own fathers may suddenly bump themselves off. They could be reassured otherwise, if they know all the circumstances.

It seems to me that telling the children would result in enormous relief, not tension and stress. Parents keep the truth from children at their peril; it always results in lies, evasions and the breaking of trust.

WHAT READERS SAY

Suicide can be the best way out

My husband also committed suicide because of incurable illness which was causing both of us almost intolerable distress. I found him hanging in the dining-room and said out loud "Thank God!" I felt that what he did - and I still feel it - was unselfish and courageous to the nth degree. Before the police had cut him down I had written to my neighbours and telephoned my friends telling everyone what had happened, that I was both relieved and proud and that I wanted no awkwardness.

People responded in their own way, with cards, flowers, letters, telephone calls. But nobody was awkward and no friends slithered away. I am still proud of his courage and of his understanding. Why does Sally not tell the children in that spirit?

RENE READ

Lies can cause real damage

I don't understand why this lady is so adamant that his suicide should be kept a secret. My grandfather committed suicide before I was born and I recall being told at around the same age as her grandchildren that he died in the war.

It was left to my grandmother to tell me accidentally years later, when she had Alzheimer's disease and no longer knew what she was saying, that he had swallowed a bottle of tablets.

I will never forget how devastated I felt then and how I still feel now; no one will talk about it and it is a subject the family never discusses. Please tell your grandchildren, suicide isn't something they should come to view as "naughty", and I promise it will only come out from someone else eventually, if you don't.

ANON

Devon

Children can take the truth

My sister committed suicide at the age of 28. I now have three children under eight of my own and have always told them the truth, from the age when they began to ask questions about the girl in the photo at Granny's house. They have accepted that "Auntie Julia hanged herself because she was unhappy". Children can accept anything and are very intuitive - they know if secrets are being kept from them and immediately worry more than if they are told the truth. There is nothing to be ashamed of - tell all of them now!

HELEN SMITHSON

Rickmansworth, Herts

Dear Virginia,

I have a rare disease and finally got a private appointment with the consultant. He was marvellously reassuring. However, he suddenly said: "You're a very interesting young woman. I'd really like to meet you again. Would you ring me and we could meet for dinner?" I was gobsmacked. I said yes, but came away feeling really abused and upset. I want to see him again as a doctor but feel I can't with his obvious interest getting in the way. And yet, as I am single, I can't help feeling intrigued. I am confused as to what to do.

Yours sincerely, Steph

Everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas@independent. co.uk - giving a postal address.

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