Helping your kid make sense of death is one of those serious and painful jobs parents face. Helping your kid make sense of death by suicide can feel nearly impossible. If you are faced with this daunting parenting responsibility, it can help to know something of why people commit suicide and how kids react to that kind of tragedy.
Why? There is no simple answer. Even when you think you know the answer, it is likely to be only a partial truth. Here are some partial truths, the most significant of which is the tragedy of not reaching out for help.
Without the perspective that comes from living for decades (rather than just years), even common problems can seem catastrophic and permanent to young people. When this inexperience with life combines with real life difficulties, some kids can’t see how things can ever get better. For a very few, suicide is seen as a way to get out from under the pain. Most often teens who commit suicide are depressed, sad and despairing. They have lost hope and are miserable. The problems they face seem insurmountable and the solutions that occur to them appear to be too little or not worth trying. Many suicidal teens are suffering from a mental illness that distorts their thinking and traps them in emotional turmoil (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, etc.).
Just because teens may lose perspective doesn’t mean their suffering isn’t real. They suffer real losses; of loved ones, dreams, or future plans. The death of someone close to them can leave them wishing to be reunited; that life is not worth living without them. They can love someone so much they lose themselves. They may not be able to win the love of the person they most desire. With no one to love, life can seem empty and meaningless. It can be all too easy to end up feeling worthless, incompetent, unlovable, broken or a failure. Kids can be terribly hurt by rejection, bullying, harassment or tormenting by peers. Living in constant fear can become unbearable. Kids can quietly end up feeling lonely and neglected, uncared for by peers or even family.
Unfortunately, some people would rather die than ask for help. They think they should take care of things on their own; not bother other people. Teenagers can quickly get in over their heads in trying to deal with the difficulties life throws at them. When they get stuck or overwhelmed it can feel like there is no way out. The shame or guilt feels too deep to share. The embarrassment is too much to bear. They may have actually been seeking help without being heard or without success. Their friends may have thought it was just words or a passing thing. Adults may not have been able to break through the denial, fear or shame the kid is feeling.
Your kid’s reaction. Most kids are hit hard by the fact that someone at their school or in their extended social network would commit suicide. If they have not had to face the death of someone close, your kid may not really know what to expect. Teens experience a range of reactions to a peer suicide.
- Shock and disbelief. At first, it is hard to accept or take in that someone would deliberately take their own life. There is often a period of stunned disbelief. This is accompanied by trying to understand it; to find out as much as possible about what happened and the events that led up to the suicide. Kids usually are trading information fast and furiously resulting in lots of misinformation and speculation presented as facts.
- Shock over the news is quickly followed by sorrow and grief. Feeling sad is at the core of grief. It is important and necessary. It can be expressed by crying, solemnity, withdrawal, and distractibility.
- Anger is a much more comfortable emotion than sadness for most people. After the death of a person you care about, it is typical to get mad at someone, God, fate, the unfairness/fragility of life. When the death is by suicide, the anger may also be directed at the very person whose death has left them so sad. How could they do this? Why didn’t they tell someone? Why didn’t they get help?
- What do you do when you are furious at the same person whose death you are grieving? How could they do this to their self and to everyone else? What makes someone resort to suicide? What am I supposed to do with these conflicting feelings?
- The death of someone you care about leads to an intense flood of feelings. As the hours go by, as the days pass, kids will just want some relief from the sadness, anger and confusion. They may end up just shutting down their emotions as a way to cope. A certain amount of numbness is expected and can even be helpful. Too much (like all the other emotions associated with death) and it starts to interfere with a healthy emotional life.
- Regret (e.g., I wish). If only I had known them better. I wish I had a chance to talk to them. Maybe I could have done something to prevent it. If I had known, I might have been able to reach out. I wish someone could have helped them.
- Guilt (e.g., I should have). Kids may feel guilty for not feeling sad enough, feeling angry at the deceased, and not reading the mind of the deceased to know what they were planning. They may think they don’t have a right to have fun or continue to take care of daily responsibilities. There are some kids who feel guilty when bad things happen to someone else, regardless of how close the relationship. When the guilt is about someone who has committed suicide, it may also occur when a kid has considered suicide themselves and figured out how to get through it. It is a kind of survivor guilt.
- If your kid doesn’t really understand how people end up becoming suicidal, they can fear that maybe they or someone close to them could become suicidal. Facing this stark example of someone embracing death can also lead to general concern that bad things could happen to them or the people they love. They may start having scary or unsettling dreams as they struggle to make sense of death and the kind of despair necessary for someone to take their own life.
- Minimize and deny. When the reality of what has happened is too difficult to contemplate, kids will try to down play the facts or ignore them altogether. If it helps give them a little time to deal with things, OK. If it is the primary long term strategy your kid uses to cope with the situation, they can end up having to withdraw, becoming more and more isolated and emotionally numb to avoid having to confront their feelings.
- Death is the ultimately personal experience. This can leave kids who are more introspective struggling with philosophical questions like can you ever really be known by another person? Why risk the pain that comes from loss by caring for other people?
When it’s your kid’s friend. If your kid loses a close friend to suicide, they will go through the kind of reactions mentioned above along with some specific responses. (Note: Carefully consider having your kid talk with a mental health professional. Even if you don’t think your child may need that kind of support, it may be useful for you to talk through how to guide your kid through this difficult experience. Helping your kid deal with something this overwhelming and complicated is not easy. Parents need resources too.)
- The guilt is significantly more intense when a friend commits suicide. The list of “if only I’s” is virtually endless. And, they aren’t easily resolved. There is always something they think they could have said, done, understood, guessed. They could have recognized the signs or taken them more seriously. Thinking you could have prevented your friend’s death or that you weren’t supportive enough is a heavy burden.
- If your kid didn’t have a clue about their friends plans, it can seriously affect their trust in their own judgment and observations. “If I missed something like this . . .?” They can end up worrying about everyone they are close to, constantly feeling the need to check on them all the time (e.g., “I’ll never let this happen to another person I love.”)
- Alone and abandoned. Their friend just left them hanging with a HUGE burden. The person they would talk to about something this big is gone, and they’re the one that caused it. And, they can’t talk about this to just anyone. Your kid will be very cautious for a while about trusting other people. It isn’t unusual for them to retreat from the world.
- Delayed reaction. For the first 2-4 weeks after a death, there is a lot of natural support and consideration. Then, people who were not directly affected by the death go back to their normal, everyday lives. As things begin to settle down, kids have time to think. They can see more clearly how different things will be without their friend. They will look around and see that everyone else seems to be doing fine, acting like things are just like before. But, it’s not the same. This is a time when kids begin to be at greater risk for depression, getting stuck in grief, feeling numb, not knowing how to go on and even considering suicide themselves.
- Fear of moving on. Teens can have trouble continuing on with their life after the suicide of a close friend. They may think that living a satisfying life is like being disloyal or making it look like the friendship wasn’t important. They can fear they might forget their friend. Teens will also wonder if people will think they really didn’t care in the first place (or they will question their own commitment to their deceased friend). They may also get stuck in the grief of their friend’s family.
- Check for possible depression and suicidal thinking in your kid. Friends have a lot in common. That’s why they are friends. Depressed and even suicidal kids are likely to have depressed and possibly suicidal friends. Make sure your kid isn’t one of them. (See the chapter in my book on how to tell if your kid may be suicidal.)
- It affects you too. When a kid in the peer group dies for any reason, all parents are traumatized: “What if it was my kid? I’d never survive it.” Make sure you take some time to care for yourself and your emotional reactions. If the deceased was a friend of your kid’s, you knew that kid and their parents. You will have your own grief work to do along with providing emotional support for that family.
Once you have some ideas about the reasons for suicide and how teens are likely to react, it is important to have some strategies to help your kid deal with the suicide of a peer or close friend. The next post will focus on specific strategies for helping guide your teen through their grief.
Good books on the topic:
Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers (Learning To Cope With Losing Someone You Love) by Earl A Grollman
When a Friend Dies (A Book For Teens About Grieving and Healing) by Marilyn E Gootman, Ed.D.
The Grieving Teen (A Guide For Teenagers and Their Friends) by Helen Fitzgerald.
(A previous version of this post appeared as a column in the Brentwood Home Page)