A young girl, age 4, lost her mother to suicide at a very young age and her father is unknown. The mother was this woman’s husband’s sister. They had been living with her grandparents but they didn’t refer to the woman as her mother but rather as her auntie. It was selfish of the grandparents not to be honest with her. Her mom died and of course, that is terribly terribly sad. The grandparents are now both in their 70s. The woman’s question was whether adoption or guardianship would be best. The answer was adoption would alter her birth certificate, removing her mother, in effect erasing her. Guardianship would allow the child to stay with them but preserve her mom’s role as that.
A woman with a similar experience shared – You should be talking about her mom often. Father, I’d try to find him if at all possible. You should also have plenty of pictures of mom and her and just mom in your home, that’s all she has left of her mother that she lost so young.
I adopted 2 children whose mother committed suicide. We talked immediately. They were older, and had more understanding but I wouldn’t have changed my approach had they been younger. The truth hurts whether they find out young or older. The conversations started with setting them down, just the 3 of us and saying. In this case, there was already a therapist on board. “Mrs.___ (therapist) just called and told me that your mom died yesterday.” The tears came immediately, and I held them until one asked how she died and what happened.” I said, Mrs.___ said that she K— herself.” They asked “why did she do that?” And I said “your mom was really sad, and her heart was hurting really badly and she did not want to hurt anymore. Your mom did not have anyone to help her when she was feeling bad, and she probably did not think things would ever get better. Sometimes people hurt themselves when they are hurting and don’t know what else to do. Sometimes they just don’t want to live anymore. And sadly, that is how your mom felt.” The youngest said “I hurt like that sometimes too, but I talk to Mrs ___ and you. I guess mama didn’t have anyone to talk to.” I said no, she probably didn’t and I wish she would have. The oldest said “so we won’t ever see her again huh?” I said, not alive, but we will go to her funeral, and you may get to see her in the casket if you want to. She will look like she’s sleeping and Me and Mrs__ will be there to help you and talk to you.”
This conversation is ongoing years later and evolves as it needs to, to help them understand exactly what happened. Obviously, your conversation will look differently because her mom died a few years ago, but she can understand more than you think, and even if she doesn’t understand, she will someday and the conversation is still important.
Every person will need a different approach when discussing tragedy. Not every child will have the same experience with grief or loss. One thing for sure, children who have already experienced trauma have sometimes already seen the worst of the worst. So while the news of their mom’s death was tragic, and heart breaking, it wasn’t a huge surprise. It wasn’t their first discussion regarding suicide or self harm. They had been in therapy and had already talked about many things involved in their mom’s suicide. While they hadn’t seen her in a year, she often talked in visits about being lonely, alone, and sad. I would never answer any questions with “I’ll tell you when you’re a bit older”. If she asks the question, then she’s old enough to take in the answer on her level.
Don’t wait to talk about her mom and the circumstances of her joining your family. Keep it age-appropriate, but honor her mother, and speak about her positively at random times to show her through action and words that it’s perfectly fine for her to bring her up. Make photos and other mementos accessible. With her being so young, she’s not likely to have many clear memories of her mother. If you can share your own happy memories, she will be able to have a deeper picture of the person her mom was.
Deliberately removing mothers cannot possibly be called progress. It is a denial of biological reality and human need. Every child has a mother: the woman who was ‘home’ for nine months, delivered them into this world, and (in most cases) fed them from her own body. A mother and her baby share an intimate and irreplaceable bond–even before the child is born. Beyond birth and breastfeeding, mothers continue to relate to their children in a unique way.
When we delete mothers from our vocabulary and from children’s lives, we are sending the message that there’s nothing special about mothers – any adult will do. But the reality is that every human being needs and longs for their genetic mother. Babies spend nine months preparing to meet the mother they already know and share a relationship with. After birth, mother-infant bonding is of the utmost importance for a child’s healthy development.