Like everyone around the globe, I was incredibly saddened by the news that famed designer Kate Spade committed suicide on June 5, leaving a 13-year-old daughter, Frances Beatrix Spade, in her wake. Unbelievably, just three days later, one of the celebs I most looked up to in the world—chef, author, traveler and TV personality Anthony Bourdain—also ended his life, leaving behind his 11-year-old daughter, Ariane Bourdain.
While my sadness (and the collective sadness of their fans worldwide) is one thing, the reality of being a child who will never again see their parent is another. For Frances, Ariane and every child who has ever lost their mother or father to suicide, my heart—and this essay—goes out to you.
Sadly, suicide is a growing problem in our country. Since 1999, suicides in the U.S. have increased nearly 30 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2016, approximately 45,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 800,000 people worldwide die by suicide annually. If you’re counting, that’s one self-inflicted death every 40 seconds.
That means, in the span of three days between Kate and Anthony’s deaths, approximately 6,478 other people around the world also committed suicide. In the United States alone, suicide leaves an estimated 7,000 to 12,000 children without a parent, a number that’s as shockingly high as it is heartbreaking.
In the United States alone, suicide leaves an estimated 7,000 to 12,000 children without a parent, a number that’s as shockingly high as it is heartbreaking.
What happens to those children, to the Franceses and Arianes of the world, upon learning their parent has taken his or her life? Unlike death by physical illness, where children often have time to process the loss and accept the inevitability of death, suicide can trigger traumatic grief for a child, one that is as suddenly painful as it is conflicted, confusing and complicated.
Psychologists know that childhood traumatic grief can lead to numerous emotional and physical responses, such as a disrupted appetite and sleep pattern, repetitive thoughts about death, withdrawal, irritability and difficulty remembering their parent in a positive light. Children may also blame themselves for the parent’s death, believing they either weren’t enough to keep their parent alive, or somehow responsible for their parent’s decision to end their life. Both, of course, are completely untrue.
In a study by Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, researchers found children under the age of 18 who had a parents commit suicide are twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression and, horrifically, three times more likely to take their own lives.
Losing a parent to suicide at an early age, specifically 13 years or younger (which, sadly, includes Frances and Ariane), can be a catalyst for future mental health problems and suicidal ideation. But, researchers are also quick to note that having a strong support system and getting the proper help during the critical window of time following their parent’s suicide can be incredibly healing for the child, helping to ultimately mitigate the risk.
Freelance writer Melissa Blake was just 21 when her father committed suicide; even then, the experience was life-altering. In an essay for Harper’s Bazaar following the death of Kate Spade, Melissa wrote: “I'm not the same person I was when my father died and I fought that for so many years.” In the moving open letter, Melissa talks about “all the chaos that you never signed up for” and “a world where everything is foreign” following her dad’s death.
As for Frances and Ariane, the hope is that their surviving parents, through their own grief, are strong enough to recognize how much support their daughters need and find a way to help lead them through what can only feel like a nightmare. Andy Spade, Kate’s husband and the father of their daughter Frances, released a statement last week indicating he’s doing just that, saying: “My main concern is Bea [Frances’ nickname] and protecting her privacy as she deals with the unimaginable grief of losing her mother.”
Ottavia Busia, Anthony’s ex-wife, posted a photo of their daughter Ariane on Instagram on June 10, with a posthumous message for Anthony, writing: “Our little girl had her concert today. She was amazing. So strong and brave. She wore the boots you bought her. I hope you are having a good trip, wherever you are.”
Both surviving parents seem to understand the suicides of Kate and Anthony will forever change their daughters and that the only way to help them get through this traumatic loss is to love them, protect them and help them find the courage to continue living.
As bystanders to this tragedy, all we can do is help keep the memories of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain alive, celebrating their incredible contributions to the world, while recognizing their deaths don't just impact us, but two very real little girls who woke up last week less one parent. We can respect their grief, give them the space and time to heal and uplift their families with our love and compassion.