Talking about Mental Health with Kids (Part 1)

After yesterday’s Whole 30 takeover, I realized I had hit on something very sacred. I received dozens of messages from people who resonated with my story of loss. It was humbling and uplifting and affirming. Thank you for sharing your stories of grief and loss with me. Thank you for supporting me as I grieve. You’re my people.

As I was praying this morning, asking God, “What do I share now? What’s the most important thing today?” I felt Him answering, “The kids.” So I want to tell you how I’ve discussed mental health issues with my children.

My kids are 6 and 3 (at the time of my sister’s death, they were 5 and 2). My sister, Ashley, looked healthy from the outside, and when she was with my children, she was always in a stable mood. She suffered from bi-polar disorder, but she didn’t come over to play with the kids when she was in an extreme high or low. She and I would spend time together regardless of her swings, but she felt it important to only be around my kids when she was level. She never wanted my children to experience chaos. She and I experienced that growing up, with our father’s suicide. She wanted things to be different for her niece and nephew. I always appreciated that.

But when she left us suddenly, a day after playing with them, I had to decide what to say. My son understood that people get sick and die, or they get old and die, or they get hurt and die. How would I explain that Aunt Ashley was fine on Sunday, but she died on Monday? My husband and I came up with a plan of action, and it has worked very well. We told him this:

Sometimes people are sick on the outside, and you can see it. But sometimes, people are sick on the inside, and you can’t tell from just looking at them. Aunt Ashley had been sick on the inside for a while. She loved you so much. And she’s not sick anymore.

His response was absolutely beautiful. He asked me if Aunt Ashley loved God. “Yes,” I answered. “Great!” he said, “So she’s in Heaven now, which is way better than here.” He hugged me, and then went on to play with his sister. He still asks about her often, when he plays with a toy she gave him or reads a book she read to him. We have pictures of her all around the house. We don’t hide Aunt Ashley from them. Even though our daughter probably won’t remember anything about her, she will know Aunt Ashley through us.

As they get older, I know we’ll share more. It will be hard, just like it was hard for my mother to explain to Ashley and me what happened to our father and our uncle. They will have many questions about the morality of suicide, about the sacredness of life, about whether Aunt Ashley was brave or a coward, and whether God is just. We will answer them all, and pray for grace and guidance.

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