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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?