Telling Elouise

Depression, Family, Grief & Loss

Her Own Words is dedicated to amplifying the voices of everyday women. Each episode features personal stories that delve into the depths of love, resilience, and everything in between. This blog is a collection of all the stories featured on the show.

The Mission

Search:

Written by Jennifer Inglis

Content Warning: This essay touches on childhood abuse, suicide, and gun violence. These are sensitive topics so please honor yourself as you move forward.

Experience the Podcast: Listen to the podcast episode or watch the full interview.


My daughter Elouise was asleep when I found out that my brother died by suicide. I heard the news from my brother’s ex-wife, and talked with my niece who asked me to let other people know. I spent the rest of the evening, while my daughter was sleeping, calling other family members. I called my husband Ben. I called my mother. I called my sister. I called my best friend. I called my aunt, who is more like a friend. I called ex-girlfriends, old friends, and I talked with the people who found him. I did all of that, told all of them, all while trying to process the news for myself. 

But I had no idea how I was going to tell my kid. 

Elouise slept all day and night because she was sick, and I let her because I didn’t know what else to do. I tried to get some rest, but the nightmare images of my brother’s last act kept me awake, my body shaking from silently sobbing so I didn’t wake Ben. The next morning, he and I wandered around the house for hours, trying to stay out of each other’s way, filling the time by making arrangements and postponing the pain for our child.

“I can’t wait any more. I’m going to be sick.” I finally told him. Ben let me take the lead, neither of us prepared for this moment.

I walked into Elouise’s bedroom and watched her for a minute. She’s tall, and likes to act like a teenager, even though she had only just turned eight. She wears an almost-uniform of hoodies covering t-shirts with baggy, comfortable pants and experiments with the lipstick, blush, and eyeshadow I allow her to wear at home. When she sleeps, though, her face and cheeks soften and she looks like a toddler again. Her fingers and hands are almost as long as mine, but she curls up with stuffed animals when she’s sleeping and looks tiny and fragile. 

I sat next to her on the bed, and pushed her hair off her forehead, tucking it behind her ear. She woke up and smiled, sleepily saying “Good morning, Mommy.” 

Her use of that almost baby-talk made me catch my breath. She didn’t usually call me Mommy; she’d graduated to Mama and was practicing the use of Mom. My baby, my sweet, kind daughter, was going to learn about something so terrible that her innocence would be gone. And it was me, her Mommy, inflicting that pain, a reverberation of my brother’s decision to end his life.

“Hey sweet girl, can you come out to the living room? I need to talk to you.”

She knew immediately that something was wrong. “What’s going on?” 

“Come on in here and we’ll talk about it.” I didn’t want to give her the news while she was in her bed. Elouise has bad anxiety, and it rears up mostly at bedtime. There are some nights when she has started crying and shaking, afraid that I or her father will die during the night and won’t be there when she wakes up. I didn’t want to make her bedroom any more frightening.

I walked with Elouise into the living room, and sat with her on the couch. I touched her knee, in a gesture I hoped was comforting. 

“Honey, I have some sad news.”

She gave me a questioning look, her cheeks flushed with fever.

“Honey, it’s about your Uncle Dan. I’m sorry but I have really bad news.” I don’t think I was crying yet, because I didn’t want to scare her. I had goosebumps on my arms, hair standing alert at the tension.

She continued to look at me, her face no longer soft like a baby. Her eyes were sharp.

“Honey, Uncle Dan died.” I said this softly, and paused for her reaction. I wasn’t sure what to expect. There was no parenting manual for this moment with my daughter.

“How? How did he die?”

This was not what I wanted her to ask; this was not what I wanted to answer. My mind quickly went through all of the things I could say to answer her question. I could lie, and say it was an accident or he was sick. But then she’d be afraid of accidents, and of being sick. I could try to avoid the question, but I knew she wouldn’t allow that. I needed to tell her the truth, but how do you tell an eight-year-old that her uncle killed himself? 

Parenting doesn’t come naturally to me, even though I fought through infertility and multiple miscarriages to have my daughter. Even though I desperately wanted a child, I knew parenting wouldn’t be easy. My brother and I grew up in an abusive and neglectful household, and I had no positive parenting example to follow. I’ve always been able to connect with kids, though, whether as a Children’s Librarian, or a teacher, or a goofy relative. I can usually calm a crying toddler by fluttering my fingers in front of their face or playing peek-a-boo. But parenting is different and is hard, even without the weight of the memories of childhood abuse.

I decided to address her questions directly.

“Uncle Dan killed himself, honey.” I grabbed Elouise’s fingers and looked her straight in the eye, returning her sharp gaze. She wanted to know. I didn’t want to lie. “Do you know what suicide is?” I asked.

“Yes, I know. I’ve heard of it.” 

I’m glad I didn’t assume she was isolated from this word, but knowing that my daughter knew about suicide was disconcerting. She hadn’t learned about it from me, or her dad, which meant she and her friends were talking about these heavy subjects. 

Elouise asked for more. “How did he do it? How did he die by suicide?”

I only had seconds to make a decision about whether or not I should tell her the truth. If I should give her a detail she would never forget. It felt like this was a turning point for me and for my relationship with my daughter. I think it was my initial instinct to deflect the question, tell her I didn’t want to talk about it, or she could learn more when she was older, or kids don’t need to know this kind of stuff. I knew, though, that I wouldn’t have the strength to sustain any sort of mistruth, or to deal with the emotional dread I imagined the prolonged punting would bring.

I paused for too long, and I could sense her getting frustrated with me. So I told her.

“He used a gun, honey.”

Elouise continued to look at me, and then stood up and left the room. She didn’t cry, she didn’t yell or scream or wail like my mother and sister did the night before. She left me on the couch, left her Dad standing in the doorway, and she went into her bedroom and shut the door. My stomach was churning while we gave her some space to process.

And then the weeping began. My little baby girl, my sweet kid, was experiencing grief for the first time, and there wasn’t anything I could do to help her. With an ache in my chest, I went into her bedroom and she was curled up in the very corner of her bed, as if she was trying to make herself into a teeny ball. Her stuffed animals were tunneled over her, and it looked like she was being protected by a small menagerie. I laid down with her, and then I started crying too. At one point she told me:

“This is the saddest day of my life.”

“Me too, baby. I’m so sorry.” We cuddled on the bed together, me trying to comfort her while trying not to freak her out with my own grief. I was numb, but I knew I wouldn’t be numb forever. I had no idea how I was going to deal with this terrible reality. I had no idea how I could parent a grieving child while being overwhelmed with my own despair. Ironically, and desperately sadly, this was the kind of parenting challenge I would have talked about with my brother. He and I commiserated over our childhood, and we promised each other that we would be better parents to our kids than ours were to us. He was my cheerleader, regularly telling me I was doing great, and that my daughter knew she was wanted and loved and safe. He called me brave, and tough (in a good way), and he would have said “Nerfer, if anyone can tell her, it’s you. You’re a good mama.”

Elouise eventually fell asleep, and I stayed in her bed overnight, arms around her and her many stuffed animals, some of which my brother bought her. I wished my brother wasn’t in so much pain that he resorted to suicide, and selfishly also wished he’d known how much pain his self-inflicted wound was going to inflict on us. I didn’t know if I’d done the right thing by telling her the truth, but I wanted her to trust that we would do our best to help her make sense of this news. 

Elouise helped us write the obituary for her Uncle Dan. She wanted everyone to know that she loved his chocolate chip cookies. During one of our last visits to his house, he taught her how to make them, the two of them mixing the batter, putting mounds of dough on cooking sheets, and then eating the result. We didn’t know then, of course, that this would be their last time in his kitchen, or the photo I took from that day, which only shows my brother from behind because he was so engaged with his niece, would be one of the last of them together. 

We held the memorial six weeks after my brother’s suicide. I showed Elouise the shiny blue urn my mother selected for his ashes, and had to explain what ashes were, a description I had never thought about for myself, never mind for a child. She wanted to carry him to the campground where we held the service. As she walked, she said, “I’m giving Uncle Dan one last hug.” It was a hot, sticky day, and the path from my car to the pavilion was a short walk in reality, but those steps seemed to take a million years, as I watched my daughter spend one last moment with her uncle. He was the type of uncle who was constantly playing with kids, rolling around on the floor being goofy and full of affection. Now he was gone, and her embrace of his urn was the last time she’d be physically close to him. 

During my eulogy, I told everyone about how much Elouise loved making cookies with her uncle. I also implored the hundred or so attendees to check on their friends and family if they hadn’t seen them in a while, to take medication if they needed it, and to please stay with us. I stood in front of people I had known for decades, family I hadn’t seen in decades, people I met for the first time that day, and a handful of children. Elouise sat in the front row, acting silly to try and keep me from crying (which of course didn’t work, sweet girl). She listened to me talk about mental health, about asking for help, about love. I’m not sure I will ever know if I should have sheltered her from the reality of suicide. But if being honest, and letting her feel the grief, means that Elouise can talk to me about her own struggles one day, then I will know that it was worth telling her.


Jennifer Inglis is a graduate of the 2022-2023 Essay Incubator and the 2021-2022 Memoir Generator, both through GrubStreet in Boston. She loves mysteries, podcasts, and travel, and lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her spouse, daughter, two cats, and a puppy. She works full-time supporting public libraries at the state level, and in her limited free time, plays board games, tries every independent donut she can find, and helps tourists find fun things to do when they visit her city.

Connect with Jennifer:

Resources & Support:

Looking for something?
Search the posts...