08/12/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Talking With Children About Suicide After Beloved Robin Williams' Death

Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Our family were huge fans of Robin Williams. I am devastated to hear that he died, and even more so that he allegedly took his own life. How do we talk to children and teenagers about someone making that choice?

Across the world, people are utterly heartbroken about the news that Robin Williams has died. I, too, am reeling from hearing that such a bright light was in so much pain that he saw no other way of carrying on but to end his life. I join all those who are grieving for this loving man, and send prayers of comfort to his family.

Suicide is a very difficult death to explain to children. In addition, when the person was someone famous or influential, it is important that we both speak about it in a way that is compassionate to the individual who has passed and his family, and that helps our children know that if they are ever deeply troubled, there are ways of getting help.

I would explain to your kids something along the lines of the following, based of course on their age and developmental maturity:

People don't commit suicide. They die by suicide, which is to say that like other illnesses, they die because of a serious illness -- in this case, apparently, severe depression. Nearly every person who dies by suicide has a diagnosable (and treatable) psychiatric illness influenced by biochemistry, one's mental state and circumstances.

Severe depression affects someone's thinking, making it hard to think rationally. The desperate desire for relief from their pain and anguish can lead them to feeling hopeless. They cannot see light at the end of the tunnel. In some rare cases, they come to believe that the only solution to ending their misery is to end their life.

Not long ago, I had a client who was extremely depressed for several months; he had struggled for years with depression, but a difficult life situation knocked him off course and destabilized him badly. At each session -- and during the worst period, nearly daily check-ins -- I had to ask if he had suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, the answer was always an unequivocal "No," but he still had trouble believing that he would ever feel better again. It took weeks to get his medication sorted out (which can be unbearable for someone whose depression is heavily influenced by a dis-regulated brain.) But that dark cloud has blessedly passed, and he is now stable, steady and very grateful for the support he received. Seeing that experience from the other side has actually prompted him to start writing about that difficult time in the hopes of helping others who, in their deepest moments of despair, lose hope.

Depression is a wicked curse and a thief of joy, but it is almost always treatable. Many people suffer in silence, attempting to put on a good front for others because they don't want to worry others, or because they simply believe nothing can be done to alleviate their pain.

If you suspect someone close to you know is suffering from depression, please let them know that you care. We often think that if we ask someone if they are suicidal, we might put that idea into their head. Letting a friend or loved one know that you are willing to hear the truth about what they are going through can give them permission to ask for help at a time when their depression has paralyzed them from taking action.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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