Care and Feeding

Evading the Truth

My nephew killed himself. What should I tell my children about his tragic death?

A woman clutching a pillow to her chest in anguish.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Marcos Calvo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Enjoy special holiday content from our Care and Feeding columnists, including coping strategies to survive the holidays from Jamilah Lemieux. Need a gift for your child’s teacher? Our teachers weigh in on the best, most useful gifts.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Three years ago, my 17-year-old nephew killed himself. He was severely depressed, and my sister and her husband had done everything they could to help him. Still, we lost him. My question follows: At the time, my kids were 3 and 6. They witnessed those raw first months of grief and the funeral. At the time—and since—I’ve explained to them that their cousin’s death was due to a “brain disease.” Kind of true (depression), but clearly not the whole story.

As they’ve grown, they ask about how he died every once in a while, and I’ve stayed true to this admittedly vague explanation. I feel caught between quickly ducking out of these conversations and not wanting to explain the whole story, given their relative youth. What really bothers me is that because I don’t feel ready to tell the whole truth, I tend to not bring him up at all, which I think is a terrible lesson for my kids’ first experience with death—once someone dies, never talk about them again! How do I keep him alive in our memories by telling stories about him while also waiting until they are the right age (which is when??) to say how he really died?

—Just Wanting to Protect

Dear Just Wanting,

I’m so terribly sorry. This is an unimaginable tragedy for a family.

I think you’ve done the right thing, personally. At 3 and 6, your kids were not intellectually prepared to comprehend suicide, and even at 6 and 9—well, they might be old enough to understand the fact of it, but only you, who know them best, can gauge whether they’ll truly be able to deal with this information.

I’d argue that the circumstances in which your nephew died are immaterial to his cousins at this point in time. And you shouldn’t feel conflicted about keeping this from them; a parent’s instinct is to protect, and you cannot be faulted for wanting to keep this terrible fact from them for as long as possible, especially as their knowing it doesn’t give your kids anything in particular.

Can you come to terms with the idea not that you’re deceiving your kids but respecting their maturity level and also honoring your nephew’s memory? The only way to show them that death doesn’t remove someone from our hearts is to talk about your nephew. Remember him at holidays or his birthday or other times special to your family. If your kids press you on the circumstances of his death, I think they’re old enough to hear you say something like, “I want to focus on the happy parts of Michael’s wonderful life, instead of the end of it, because that still makes me sad, even after all these years.”

There will probably be a point at which these conversations organically lead to you disclosing the full truth of your nephew’s death. Maybe if you keep his memory alive, this won’t feel like an abrupt bombshell but another facet of the story of the life of someone you all loved.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I was adopted as an infant by incredibly selfless, loving, wonderful parents. I’ve known this fact since the minute I was old enough to understand it. It’s never bothered me—my family is my family because they treat me as such, and it doesn’t matter that I’m not biologically related to them.

Because I’m so comfortable with it, I have a hard time understanding why people are so stuck on biological family or genetics. A friend and her husband are on round four of in vitro fertilization. Prior to her deciding to take this chance again, I asked if they’d ever consider adopting. She replied, “No, we don’t want that. If I can’t have my own baby, then I guess it’s not meant to be”—which I also don’t understand, because how many times does one have to try before deciding it wasn’t meant to be?

I’ve been supportive of her all of the times it hasn’t worked out, letting her cry to me, being with her when she’s sad, but I’m having a lot of difficulty being truly compassionate because I don’t understand why someone would go through all of that just because they want their child to biologically be theirs. My question, I guess, is: Is there something wrong with me that I can’t get myself to empathize with my friends in these situations? How can I get myself to a place of understanding?

—What’s in a Family?

Dear WIAF,

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you! I think she’s telling you that adoption is not for her, but you’re hearing that adoption is lesser or subpar or somehow bad.

But that’s not what she’s saying. She’s saying adoption is not the right choice for her and her husband. And that’s a valid way to feel. As someone whose life was formed by adoption, you cannot help but feel implicated in this, or like you have some responsibility to argue the point with her. If you are very close, you could do just that—ask her to consider the positive effect adoption had in your family’s life.

But truly, that’s outside your office as friend; your job is to listen, to be empathetic and supportive, and you’ve done just that. It might sting because you’re understanding your friend’s choice to pursue fertility treatments as a rejection of the circumstances that formed you. But you shouldn’t think of it that way. The happiness inside your own family is a wonderful thing, but it may not be easily replicated in your friend’s family. You may not fully understand your friend’s choice, but you don’t need to in order to still be a good friend to her.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

Quite a bit of a reversal here, as I am a teenager asking for advice on my parents! My parents have been married 20ish years, but my father has wanted a divorce for some time now. My relationship with both parents is a bit shaky at this point (don’t get me wrong, I still love them very much).

My mom always has to get the last word in (usually when we are fighting). She tells me I can come to her with anything, but when I do, she tells me to get over it, tells me about something similar happening to her but worse, or changes the subject entirely and ignores my problem. She believes I am selfish and stupid, yet asks me to spend my money to help the family when we cannot afford things (usually after she spends a bit of money on things we don’t need).

My dad can’t be trusted with money (according to my mother) and is working a bad job where he comes home at who knows when, makes only barely above minimum wage, and only gets two days off if he’s lucky, so I can’t go to him with any problems either. They often want me to pick sides against the other (it doesn’t work, just makes me like them both less). Am I a bad person for wanting them to get divorced already so I don’t have to hear them fight anymore?

—Watch Me Get Grounded for Submitting This

Dear WMGGfST,

I am so sorry to hear about this situation. I can tell you’re looking for parental guidance, and it sounds very hard to receive a lack of that from your mother and a lack of availability from your father. On top of that, you have to deal with their preoccupation with their dysfunctional marriage instead of parental concern for you. That’s really disappointing.

I’m happy to hear that you still feel you love your parents, even if things are shaky at the moment. You are not a bad person at all for wishing Mom and Dad would divorce, because you imagine it might solve their biggest problem and make them more available to you. Unfortunately, sometimes toxic marriages transform into prolonged divorces; a relationship can become so dependent on conflict that it’s impossible for the parties to give that up. And if Mom and Dad are currently jockeying for your favor and sympathy, that might be all the worse once formal custody and child support arrangements are being negotiated.

It is in no way your job to worry about your parents’ marriage, even though it’s very difficult not to since it directly affects you. You seem like a really mature young person, but I think you need a grown-up in your corner. It sounds like your mom is not that person, given that she doesn’t always hear you. Even though your dad is a busy guy, I would try to find some time alone with him—even if it’s just an hour—to talk to him clearly about what you’re feeling.

If that seems impossible to you, is there another adult in your life who can listen? A professional could certainly help, or even a teacher, a doctor, or a minister. I also would recommend an aunt or uncle or another relative, since they might have some insight into how to communicate to your folks that they need to stop bickering and do some parenting.

I’m really sorry about this, and I hope this letter helps a little. This is a big problem, and one conversation isn’t going to solve it, but it will be a start. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a son in kindergarten. Recently we got feedback from his teacher that he’s behind his peers in reading sight words and recognizing letters, let alone knowing what letters go with what sounds. The teacher gave us flashcards and extra homework sheets and puzzles to work with him.

My wife has gone off the deep end with this. She drills him with flashcards every night, runs around the house putting sticky notes with letters on everything, and quizzes him randomly at dinner (“What sound goes with A?”). My son privately asked me if Mommy doesn’t love him because he’s not smart. What do I do? I told my wife to back off, and she has, to an extent, but my son is still falling behind. Any advice?

—ABCs Aren’t As Important As “I Love Yous”

Dear ABCs,

Yikes. It must have been hard to hear your son say those words, and I hope for his sake that you told your wife and she took that to heart.

Of course you are concerned about your son’s education—he’s lucky to have parents who are involved and attentive. But he’s 5! It’s wonderful that his teacher is mindful of his development, but I can’t imagine she intended you drill him into A-student shape. That might not even be possible. Development doesn’t adhere to schedules and calendar years; it’s an individual process, and the point isn’t just to catch up to his peers but to make sure he’s wholly himself.

Instead of insisting your son learn sight words, think about how you can create a family life that understands curiosity and inquiry as part of play and fun. Leave the sticky note labels up, sure, but cut out the mealtime oral examinations. Let your son join in as you use words—writing a grocery list, reading a recipe, reading a bedtime story. Don’t worry about whether he’s learning some tangible thing or subject him to a bunch of questions; let him observe how words are a part of everyday life.

You can do the same with numbers or shapes or colors or really any concept. Let these lessons be another aspect of your daily life, and don’t worry too much about whether they’re sticking. The mastery of sight words (and shoelace tying and punctuation and the monkey bars and so much else) will come in time. What you have it in your power to affect right now is his self-esteem and his feelings about school generally. Your son, at 5, understood the implication of all your wife’s examinations as him being dumb. Ironically, I think that proves he’s quite smart indeed.

—Rumaan

More Advice From Slate

My wife and I named our daughter Nola. We wanted a unique name, like New Orleans, and thought it was pretty. Six months later, my brother has named his new son Nolan, the male version of Nola. We are shocked and hurt that he picked this name without asking us if this was all right. Are we being overly sensitive, or is it weird to steal our 6-month-old’s name?