Helping your kid make sense of death is one of those serious and painful jobs parents face. Helping your kid make sense of teenage suicide can feel nearly impossible. One way to prepare yourself is to know something of why people commit suicide and how kids react to that kind of tragedy. (See part one of this two part blog post.) But, what do you say to your kid? This post provides some specific strategies for helping guide your teen through their grief over the suicide of a peer or close friend.
- Talk to them about suicide. Kids won’t know what to make of suicide. It is scary to think someone could just up and kill themself. Kids have “why” questions about what makes someone commit suicide (see previous column for some explanations). Ask them what they think? Don’t wait for them to approach you. Talking about how someone could get to the point of committing suicide will be a chance to emphasize what ANYONE should do if they begin to think or feel bad enough to want to die.
- Don’t glorify it. This is one of the deepest kinds of tragedy; a young person ending the promise of their own life. They are not a martyr. Sadness for the kid and for yourself, anger over the senselessness of suicide, sympathy for the ongoing pain of surviving friends and family; this is the legacy of suicide.
- Help them find a way to think about the kid who died. Suicide leaves most people with mixed feelings. Kids who commit suicide have lost hope, they were rash and impulsive, they let a moment of pain or embarrassment cloud their vision. You are deeply saddened by their death, you are angry they took their own life. It is confusing. Help your kid learn how to hold conflicting emotions about this tragedy.
- Highlight the effect of the suicide on loved ones and friends. Suicide ended their suffering at the cost of leaving a dark mark on the life of everyone who cared for them. Parents and close friends never get over the death of a child. At best, parents learn to go on. Teenage friends must find a way to have the shadow of grief sharpen the edges of the joy in living.
- Let them know that other kids may have trouble dealing with this loss. Help them sympathize with the kids who were close to the deceased.
- Recognize the signs of suicide. The tragedy of suicide is deepened when people might have been able to do something. Help your kid know the signs (see the chapter in my book on the warning signs of suicide.)
- Reach out for help when you are hurting. Drive this point home. Nag them about it. Insist on it. Annoy them with it. “DON’T TRY TO DEAL WITH STUFF ALL BY YOURSELF!” “You had BETTER talk to me when you are feeling really low.” “Don’t make me have to ask you every day how you are feeling because I will.”
- Help them understand the process of mourning. Even if your kid didn’t know the deceased well, they are still likely to be affected by the fact that someone their age actually committed suicide. If it was someone your kid saw on a daily basis or, more painfully, a close friend, they will be going through the grieving process. It can help them to know what to expect.
- Acceptance (e.g., it has to sink in).
- Facing the pain (e.g., going through the emotional reactions to the loss; see previous column on how kids react).
- Making sense of death (e.g., the world will look different now that one of the Big Issues has entered their realm of awareness, especially if the deceased was a friend)
- Dealing with the absence of the person. (e.g., getting used to the person no longer being a part of their ongoing life).
- Moving forward with life while finding a psychological place for the deceased (e.g., making peace with death by finding a place in their heart and head for the memory of the deceased).
- Talk about how they can tell if they are having difficulty dealing with the suicide. (See Signs of Unresolved Grief below)
Reassure and comfort them.
- Talk to them about the kid who died. What do they think was going on that led to suicide? Talk about how much pain the kid must have been in. What would your kid do if things started looking dark and hopeless? Be sympathetic and sad that the deceased didn’t seem to know what they could have done. Don’t think you have to try to talk negatively about them as a way to discourage your kid from considering suicide. Take some time to review good memories you have of the kid who died. Ask your kid about some of the memories of their friend they will carry with them.
- Talk to them about faith beliefs. Faith beliefs are crucial aspect of talking about death. People who commit suicide have lost faith that life has more to offer. Talk about what your religious or faith beliefs have to say about life and death. In some religions, suicide can have even have eternal consequences (not an insignificant discouragement for believers). Help them see how your faith traditions (e.g., prayer, lighting prayer candles, etc.) are a source of comfort as well as an act of faith.
- Give them permission to grieve their classmate/peer. Help your kid make some time to grieve. Consider the potential value of a personal memorial or service. If the deceased was not a close friend, you might even consider a moment of silence.
- Encourage them to take some time to make sense of the death. A powerful, upsetting event like suicide can raise a lot of questions (and fears). What happens when you die? What if I die young? How do you live each moment to the fullest and still plan for the future? These questions are important to contemplate. Events like a suicide will raise them. Talk about them with your kid.
- Your kid may not be very upset. They should feel sad and thoughtful about the death of a peer but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be deeply affected. The relationship may not have been that close. Sometimes kids feel pressured to be more distraught than they actually are. Genuine expressions of feelings are what matter; you shouldn’t have to force it. If the death doesn’t effect them too deeply, they may benefit from knowing how to act and how to be sensitive to others grief. (You can’t force someone to grieve. If it was a close friend and they seem unaffected, something is wrong. Keep a close eye on them.)
- If your kid’s reaction seems out of proportion to the closeness of the relationship, try to look a little deeper into why this had affected them so strongly. The suicide may have raised some issues that weren’t obvious before.
- Encourage them to reach out to others; hold people closer rather than pushing them back (to avoid getting hurt if they, too, die).
- Bear witness to their grief. That can mean both being present with them as they grieve as well as grieving with them.
- Keep an eye on your kid for 6 months or so. (See Signs of Unresolved Grief below)
Help them learn from it.
- Call it what it is. It is suicide. A kid killed him or her self. They lost hope and didn’t reach out to others for help in the end. They were depressed and unable to think clearly. Use this to talk about what to do if your kid finds themself anywhere near that place in their life.
- What would they do? If the deceased wasn’t a close friend, talk about what they might have done to avoid sinking so low. How would your kid try to help if someone they were close to was suicidal? What should they do if they begin to feel like death was preferable to living?
- Use the strong feelings generated by this loss to do something about it. One way to channel the anger and sadness you feel about suicide is to act. Join a suicide prevention organization.
- Talk about what they learned from this tragedy about life, death, what is important in life, not reaching out for help, depression and losing a sense of your self.
- Talk about the importance of making a place for hope in your life.
- What to say to other people. It is surprisingly easy to say the wrong thing with the best intentions. Take some time to come up with some things to say to friends of the deceased, the parents of the deceased, and (if the deceased was a close friend) to friends who are asking your kid if they are OK.
Signs of unresolved grief. If the deceased was not a good friend, your kid should be gradually engaging in life after a week or so. They will continue to deal with the effects of the suicide on their thinking, mood and relationships but they will begin to pick up again on school work, extracurricular activities, and displaying a full range of emotions (including happiness, sense of humor, interest, joy, etc.) again. Unresolved grief refers to the continuation of normal grief reactions across months (and even years). If these things show up, it’s time to consult:
- Depression (ongoing sadness, lack of energy and interest in things) continuing unchanged for weeks after the suicide
- Thoughts of dying or suicide
- Pessimism and living for the moment at the expense of important life tasks like school, hobbies, relationships.
- Inability to talk about the deceased without becoming overcome with emotion.
- Attempts to preserve articles belonging to or associated with the deceased (with an accompanying strong reaction should anyone suggest otherwise).
- Overly preoccupied with the deceased, talking about them all the time or not talking about anyone else.
- If the deceased was a close friend of your kid, systematic avoidance of talking about them is a worrisome sign. Lack of strong emotional reactions means they are very likely stuffing the pain. It is almost certain to show up later in an undesirable form.
As parents, you are in the perfect position to help your child make sense of the difficulties they encounter in life. Love, reaching out for support and accepting the comfort of others is at the heart of surviving tragedy of any sort. It is also the greatest gift we have to offer and to teach our kids.
(A previous version of this blog appeared as a column in the Brentwood Home Page)