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Following a friend's suicide, our 15-year-old son is having an extremely hard time, experiencing suicidal thoughts and visible depression. And while he is very sad and shocked at losing his friend, his primary reason is that 'life is meaningless' which is something he tells us that he realized way before the tragedy.

We are seeing a psychologist and he confirmed that 'this is serious' however 'we have to be patient as time will tell' etc. I of course want to be patient but I also want to be in the best position possible to support our son.

How to explain to him that life is not meaningless? And if it is, that it would not become less meaningless with him dying to suicide?


(From a post addressing one of the answers:)

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer, Rororo and dxh. I believe that everyone answering is getting the point, finding proper words to describe exactly the situation is in itself challenging. I agree that using the wrong words or even wrong reasoning can lead to bad consequences. He has suicidal thoughts because 'life is meaningless'. Hence my question is how I can support him to transition out of this period that is darkened by this type of thoughts and I am actually exploring what is the best way to explain that 'absolute truths' are not the way to go and support him to become interested in living his life to discover new truth and meaning. Rororo you have rightly indicated that my son is an atheist while I am religious (we do not debate around this).

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    I ould advice you to (also) talk to the psychologist treating your son and ask them the same question you asked here. They might be able to give more specific advise based on their knowledge of your son and their expertise. – Bart van Ingen Schenau May 1 at 15:16
  • Thank you Bart. We are. – Stephanie May 2 at 6:09
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Your question doesn't really touch it, but the title does, so I'll first point out I'm not qualified to give advice on suicide prevention. I would also call that off topic for this site. I will try to focus on the parenting angle of how to parent him in this crisis, as opposed to how to be his psychologist.

On that note, your already doing something right for being in a position where you're even privy to this information. I was in a similar place when I was that age, and despite a good relation, that is not something I ever would've shared with my parents.

In managing this, I believe it will be imperative to find the balance of taking him serious without validating his suicidal thoughts. I react, for instance, on your question about how to make him see that it would not become less meaningless by him dying. To me, that would just register as not being understood. I still think that persisting in living when life is painful solely for the wellbeing of someone else, which that comment comes across as, is a big ask. The motivation to go on must be grounded in himself (I believe), in a promise of his own worthwhile future.

As kids, many of us will have come across the notion that kids have it easy, and if only they knew what it's like to have to work and pay bills and care for a family they wouldn't complain. And maybe some kids do have it easy. But as an adult, I find adult life tremendously much simpler than my youth, and I am inclined to believe that will hold true for most kids going through depression. In that situation, I think the opposite messaging is badly needed - to hear that life gets better. It'll likely be true for most of those who hit bottom at 15.

Does he seem apathetic? Because that can be a terribly powerful negative feedback loop. Find ways to break it. Help him end up in situations where he isn't left to his own thoughts.

I believe you need to put in a lot of work on really earning his trust that you will listen and truly hear him before he will be open to take advice. Premature advice may reinforce the idea that you don't understand, and may have an alienating effect. Again, he must not feel that you're trying to keep him alive for your own selfish reasons, but truly for his sake.

To question why one should keep on living when life itself is painful is a valid question. It should be taken seriously. Not to the point of validating suicide as a solution, but you need to work to find a good answer, and not just disqualify the question. He needs to be convinced that there's actually something to go on for. And I don't expect he'll take your word for it until he's seen that you're also open to the idea that life really does seem meaningless to him right now.

Citing the meaninglessness of life is symptomatic, to me. I've seen it in myself and several others. Depression is treacherous in that way. You convince yourself that you're depressed because life is meaningless when most likely, life seems meaningless because you're depressed. I'm not sure he's open to hear that from you, though. But as he's already seeing a psychologist, you're already treating him to some extent so you may consider whether it might be helpful to talk more to him about depression as an illness. To reinforce that it's something he's suffering from and not something that is integral to who he is. I can't say what will be your key to convincing him that a brighter future is tenable, but perhaps that's one possible route.

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    +1. So good to hear from someone with the actual experience. One nit-picky observation which might be linguistic: I think to validate doesn't mean to support the thought, but to recognize it as real, as in supporting the person's right to think that thought. Please correct me if I'm wrong; I see suicide as a choice, a decision, in the face of helplessness/hopelessness. The best way not to feel helpless is to make a decision/plan, i.e. have some agency/a plan one can accomplish to end the pain. One can, though, have/make a better plan. Validate feelings, but encourage hope. – anongoodnurse May 1 at 23:10
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    Hi dxh, thank you so much for taking the time to answer. I indeed posted here in hope I could get answers from parents and not from psychologists (although the latter would be of course valuable). The fact that several people stopped here, realized they cared enough to take some time to answer, means the world to me and puts me in a slightly better position to face another day through this. – Stephanie May 2 at 6:15
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    @anon: yes, I was struggling with the words and I'm sure I didn't always nail it in this one. In other areas I usually stress validation a great deal more, I'm just particularly cautious here that a depressed person may be locked into their own idea of a single possible solution so that any positive reinforcement has the risk of being construed as vindicating the suicidal tendencies. It's an area where we have to tread very lightly. – dxh May 2 at 7:24
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    @anon: a problem with antidepressants, for instance, is that they risk being effective against the feeling of helplessness before they've started affecting the suicidal tendencies. A person who is just put on antidepressants should be monitored at all times. Likewise, it's not obvious that a person who wants to kill themselves should have agency, although I agree that's part of the problem. – dxh May 2 at 7:58
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    @stephie: I get that, it's just that the topic is bordering on the medical side, and I wanted to stress that I shouldn't be read as giving advice on that. I really hope all goes well for you. – dxh May 2 at 7:59
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I'm sorry for what your family is going through. It must be very frightening for all involved, and really does require the help of a professional or two (or three.) You might benefit from individual counseling at this time as well to help you to handle this.

You can't force your child to have a different opinion of life. He isn't wrong to hold that opinion; many good philosophers have come to the same conclusion.

At this age, it's hard to change a kid's mind using reason, because they don't have the reasoning skills of an adult with a fully matured brain. But you can engage and discuss.

When he says "life is meaningless", it could mean anything: "I'm depressed", "I feel lost", "I don't know what to do with my life", "I don't have good friends", "the world is falling apart", etc. It could mean different things at different times, so it's important to ask what it means at that moment and to listen/discuss, not to attempt to dissuade. He doesn't need to feel he's unsupported or misunderstood (no one does!)

People his age often don't feel they have agency, or the ability to change things. This becomes a negative feedback loop, caused by and feeding depression. When talking to him, you can help him see where he does have agency: he can choose how to think and how to act.

Examples of choosing how to think include focusing on living in the present, things that bring him joy, and focusing on gratitude for things large and small, for just a few examples.

Examples of choosing how to act include deciding to find things he might enjoy (if he hasn't yet, or to add to those he does have), to practice things he has talent for, to take up a hobby through which he might express his feelings (e.g. photography), to pause to take note of his surroundings and what is pleasing about them, or to change his surroundings to find something pleasing (like going for a hike.) It's not easy to do when one is depressed, but it's a positive start.

My favorite book recommendation for people with depression or anxiety is Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is no lightweight; an MIT alumnus, he was asked by UMass to start a program to help people facing life threatening illnesses to cope with the stress of living in such a state. He did so with great success. This book is a simplified version of what he found helpful (the denser version is Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Note that psychological pain (or angst) is still pain. (He has helped war veterans as well.)

I guess what I'm saying is that, while still being supportive and listening, you can help your child to move in the direction of more positive thought patterns, which would be helpful. But don't blame yourself if he doesn't do so; to take your suggestions is his choice.

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  • thank you so much for your reply. I don't know if you read between lines, but what is most frightening is that a retrospective of his life indicates now that the idea of a meaningless life has always been there (with no suicidal thoughts) and this depression episode triggered by losing a friend to suicide has found the perfect ground for creating the storm we are going through. I love the 'how to think' and 'how to act' references and will look up the book. Up until now we've had some small successes under the 'how to act' bucket. – Stephanie May 2 at 6:26
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    But what brought me here indeed was the 'how to think' question. I've read here that we must be doing something good already if we are trusted enough to have access to this information. I hope this is true, and whether it is or it isn't, I certainly wake up every day feeling blessed that we know and that we can still do something about it. Thank you again for responding. – Stephanie May 2 at 6:27
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    @Stephanie - If your son feels freedom to talk to you about things this deeply... threatening, then you're doing a lot right already. He trusted you to be supportive. That's huge. About meaningless, it's not an uncommon thought in the younger generations. We need to give meaning to our lives. The question is how? Follow society's roadmap? Forge our own? Many people find meaning in helping others. Maybe he can try that out by volunteering for something meaningful to him, even if it doesn't ultimately translate to a 'meaning of life'. – anongoodnurse May 2 at 17:55
  • @Stephanie On the "how to think" side, I recommend "Feeling Good" by Dr David Burns. It's a great CBT book for laypeople. – stan Jun 18 at 11:50
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tl;dr:

  1. If you try to 'explain' life has a meaning, your son might stop listening to you.

  2. Life might be meaningless, but it can be pretty interesting.

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What you wrote resonates with me. My feelings/thoughs were similar to those of your son. The existing answers bring up valid points (and one or two I am horrified by). But I think there is something fundamental that is missing:

Your son realized that "life is meaningless".

You ask "How to explain to him that life is not meaningless?".

That question might be missing the point - and might even be dangerous.

About "explaining that life is not meaningless":

I think if you try "explaining" that to him, he will sooner or later notice the gaps in your logic. He might still like you, but he will stop taking your opinions seriously.

Think about it: A statue has a meaning. A Poem. Some pictures. But life? Statues, Poems and pictures were created by someone with some intent or message. The only way to argue "live has a meaning" is to assume some creator or higher force has created it with such. Your son has thought hard about the meaning of life at a young age. So I strongly doubt he is a very religious type.
A possible non-religious argument would be to call our genetic "programming" the "meaning of our life". But that information is depressing in itself - not something that would stop a suicide (ironicly, the programming itself does stop us, but that is a different topic).

Now, I guess you feel that your life has a meaning. But that is a different thing, and you cannot transfer that feeling by an explanation.

So, what can you do?

  1. Keep talking with your son. Please do not make assumptions like "they don't have the reasoning skills of an adult with a fully matured brain". From what you wrote, your son might be more analytical than you yourself. So ask. Learn his reasoning. You might feel about things differently, but it will do both of you good if you can understand each others reasonings.

  2. And remind him that life does not need to meaningful. It is like exploring a mysterious forgotten house: The house has no deep meaning, nor has the exploration. And we might hurt ourselves horribly while doing it. But people enjoy doing it. Tell him that it is ok if life feels bad at the moment. If you tell him "life will get better" it might sound like a platitude for him (and it might actually be). But ask him to stay curious.

(3. There was some reason for his friend's suicide. Make sure it is not affecting our son as well. Face any other ongoing external issues. Otherwise you are fighting an uphill battle with point 4.)

  1. Give him the agency to make life interesting. Is his life just "enduring school so he can get a 'hopefully' get joyless job"? Make him the one to decide what you do on holidays or summer-break. Only condition: it has to be interesting and/or a new experience. Could be dissassembling a rusted car-wreck in your car-port. Could be spending a week with some relatives he has never seen before. Visiting a town across the border. Helping in a shelter. Climbing some mountain he has seen on television. Riding a horse. Dog-sitting. Joining a protest. Visiting a skate-park. Hunting with someone who does that thing. Applying for some absurd side-job and doing it for a month or two.

You might even consider a "I will tell the school you are ill - but only if you have a plan for the day that is more interesting!" Remember that depression drains energy, so you might want to start with these things on good days.

Life might have no meaning - but you can help to make it interesting.

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  • I read this as mostly a semantic issue. I think it's fine to speak of what makes life interesting and what makes life meaningful interchangably. In that light, I think picking on choice of words might run the risk of cementing the idea that you're not understanding the child, and I think reinforcing the notion that life is indeed devoid of meaning might have terrible consequences. I do like some of the suggestions you provide in #4, however. I think we should both be cautious with assuming what worked for us will be universally beneficial. – dxh May 7 at 21:58
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    " The only way to argue "live has a meaning" (...) higher force has created it with such." I disagree. This assumes that "meaning" requires someone create a thing with intent/message. But other definitions could exist; "death of the author" says that the meaning created by the audience is more important than the author's intent, so meaning with no authorial intent isn't a crazy concept. I myself feel that "meaning" is closely linked to "what stories do we/can we tell about our own lives". Just saying this question is not solved... But your point that the answer isn't "yes, obviously" stands. – Oosaka May 28 at 14:06
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I have a similar situation with my 19-year old son right now. In addition to leading him to professional councelling, which you have already done, I try not to project my own fear and deep concern on my son. That is more than challenging for you as a parent than most of the challenges you have probably ever been confronted with, I imaging. But (and this has been mentioned by other users before, in answer to your question)try not to give your son the idea that he should live, because the thought of living without him would be unbearable for you as his loving parent, however heartbreaking and worrying this situation is for you. It is, I fear, no valid reason for your son to give "meaning" to his life. Even if it is a perfectly natural reaction, to reason with him, i.e. to propose solutions, remind him of the good things in his life (he will not see that, because he is currently seeing the world with the eyes of a depressed person, and that is a clinical, neuro-biological state, he can't help it). Try indeed to distract him as much as possible, without focussing on his state of mind. Stay open for all communication, verbal and non-verbal. Observe him and trust him, give him support, but don't over-emphasise his depressed state, your son might might try to avoid showing his feelings, only to spare you, because he loves you and does not want you to worry. Keep in close contact with his therapist, and share your worries with someone who is qualified in this field. Because in order to help and offer guidance, your son needs you, and your mental health is of great importance now! I wish you all the best! I have been there myself, as a mother and patient, so I know how important it is to share your thoughts while going through such a difficult time.

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I am posting this as an answer because I think it's too answer-like for a comment, but it is really reacting to your own answer that's replying to other answers. (Update: now included in the question itself.)

It is interesting that your son is an atheist while you are religious - this is one of the "divides" isn't it between the two, in that religion often argues that life has meaning (and religion provides it) and that this is good, while atheism often rejects religious concepts of "meaning" and its value, and is much more comfortable with the concept of life being meaningless.

The reason I think the division is salient in this case is that there is a lot of atheist philosophizing about "the meaning of life" and what it can mean in a non-religious context, and many different conclusions people come to - some people think life is meaningless and feel depressed over it, but many also believe life does have meaning (by some atheist-compatible definition or another that satisfies them), or they believe life is meaningless but don't find that distressing at all - some even find that comforting or liberating!

But here, your son is an atheist growing up in a religious household, so the divide I described at the start might be the only exposure he has had to the concept. And your own reflex of making him understand that life does have meaning might be another indicator of that: you do think it is important for one's happiness to believe life has meaning. And he might have drifted from your belief that life has meaning, but still share your belief that if it doesn't then that's awful and depressing. And I don't want to claim that belief is false - I think this is a very active philosophical question that many different people come to different conclusions on. I also suspect it's kind of a stalking horse for general outlook on life - depressed people will find it harder to see meaning in life and will find that depressing, where happy people will find meaning that is satisfactory to them or won't care, or won't even consider the question because they're too busy with the work of living. So treating his depression as such might help as much as addressing the philosophical question.

But maybe one thing that could be helpful for you as religious parents, is to investigate optimistic atheist resources that study the question of life's meaning or lack thereof; those might help your son more than your own attempts, that might be coming from basic beliefs that he no longer shares. I don't have specific recommendations, other than Greta Christina's "Comforting thoughts about death that have nothing to do with God", that I mostly recommend on the strength of the title and a history of liking her blog years ago.

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I know the amount of pain and suffering involved when that question first hits you: "what's the point in living". I remember going through that time, it was truly a tormenting period, I suffered from deep depression and was afraid to drive from fear that I might kill myself! The question "why do I exist" did not leave me go for a second, and whenever I tried to come up with a good reason of why life is worth living my mind would quickly come up with a refutation and present a better reason of why my logic was wrong. I read books on existential philosophy which only confirmed in my mind that life is indeed meaningless, since so many philosophers seemed to agree that life has no meaning, it was a vicious cycle. That was probably the single most important time of my life, as it had a huge impact on me, and it completely changed my attitude towards life and transformed my whole being. There isn't a day that goes by without me thinking about the meaning of life.

I do agree somewhat with other posters that this crisis is mainly caused by depression rather than the other way around, however I do not believe that it proves that the question has no validity. That is, it is true that what made him realize that life has no meaning was the depression that he has fallen prey to when his friend died, however the philosophical problem that was presented to him is still a very real one. Tolstoy, was presented with the same problem and fell into depression and almost committed suicide, as a result he became religious, you can read about it here. This might actually be your son's spiritual awakening, or religious conversion when he realizes that atheists and philosophers do not have answers to these kind of questions and might turn to religion to provide the answers, or it might take him an entirely different route.

I can only suggest to you what actually helped me, and that is reading and reading. It is comforting to see that other people have been bothered by the same question, and that your not alone, and your son can actually find meaning in that. It will give your son a break from the problems that keep tormenting him, and at the same time give him food for thought. Your son will not get over this until he's cured of his depression, but in the meantime this will help him figure out the answer to his problem and put him at ease. I suggest you go to the library and take out lots of books on the subject.

I specifically recommend the book "What's it all About?" by Julian Baggini. Somewhere in that book Baggini argues that no one actually believes that life is meaningless, if you truly believed so then why get so worked up with the "meaningless life problem", since that itself is meaningless!? I remember that I found that argument very comforting and was the beginning of my healing process. And then I recommend Tolstoy's works, he basically argues that the question has no answer since you can't demand an explanation of the finite in terms of the infinite. This may sound gibberish to you, but there is a truth to it, and that is something only your son will be able to understand. Only when your son realizes that the question itself is absurd, and that we humans do not have the answer to these questions as they are beyond the reach of human understanding will he let go of the problem and start living life once again (it's like asking what was before the big bang, or what is "non-existence" like, questions which no philosopher or scientist can answer).

However, I should note that you have to be careful with what you pick up for your son, a lot of books out there on the subject of existential philosophy are extremely negative and depressing, and can only worsen the situation at hand and even harm his fragile mind. Try to look out for positive books and authors which will reassure your son that all is not lost, and deal with the philosophical problem in a useful and productive way.

Wish you luck!

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