Helping your children after a suicide
suicide; death; depression; grief;
This article is intended for parents whose children or teenagers have experienced the loss of a friend or another student at school through suicide, although much of the information will apply in other situations.
Although too many young people kill themselves, many more older people commit suicide. Family members can kill themselves and this can be much harder to deal with because you are also likely to be very deeply distressed, angry and confused. A person particularly 'at risk' of suicide is a 'non-custodial' father.
The suicide of a child or young person is devastating for their family, their community and their friends and fellow students. It can deeply damage a young person's sense of security if someone they know has killed themselves, and it can bring up strong and difficult feelings for them (and you) to cope with.
As a parent, you too will experience a range of emotions about and towards the young person who has died. The shocking reality that some young people choose death as a way of coping with their difficulties is frightening and painful. It may seem to threaten your own family and the safety of your young people – you may feel that if such things are possible they might happen in your family too.
Generally speaking the impact that such a death will have depends on how close you or your children were to the dead person or whether they were exposed to the trauma of witnessing distressing scenes.
If the young person was part of a school community, the distress reaction can become magnified because so many young people are fearful and grieving together, and the level of emotion can run high. Most schools in Australia are sensitive to this and will usually have put a program in place to assist the students and teachers, but your children will still need your support and understanding at home to help them through.
It is increasingly being shown that group debriefing and counselling may be harmful rather than useful.
Many of us are now aware of the so-called 'cycle of grief' and the feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, sadness and guilt that arise at the time of a death. However a suicide is a particular sort of death and certain feelings will be prominent, especially anger and guilt, as well as the fear that such despair is catching and may affect your own family.
- Guilt can figure very strongly in the response of young people to the death of a peer. Young people are especially likely to feel that there is something they could or should have done to prevent a friend or school-mate from killing himself/herself ('if only I had…'). Relationships are naturally unstable and changeable in the teenage years, but adolescents also put a lot of store in loyalty and mateship. There will usually be something a young person feels they could have said or done, or shouldn't have said or done, that might have added to the burden of the dead person.
- Anger can be a strong response to young people killing themselves. There is a strong sense of injustice when a life is cut short and anger is a natural reaction. "Why didn't someone do something?", "Why did someone put pressure on them?" There is no answer to these questions. Blame is never useful as a way of coping with our own anger and difficulty in coming to terms with what has happened. However, sometimes blame is a useful distancing defence which will break down slowly.
to help yourself
If you are going to do a good job of supporting your child over the coming weeks or months, it is important that you are, as a parent, able to accept your own feelings about the suicide. These of course will vary according to how close you were to the young person and their family.
You need to be able to tolerate discussing the event without extreme discomfort. This doesn't mean without sadness of course, but it is important that you feel you can talk about the feelings involved without becoming agitated and angry. If you do have these strong feelings every time you think or go to talk about the event, then it's a sign that you should talk to a trusted friend or counsellor about what you are experiencing.
To help yourself
- Talk to other adults about your feelings about the death.
- Keep in touch with other parents.
- Getting back to a normal routine is important… it gives space to slowly resolve things. It is also important to allow a child time to forget what has happened for some part of each day. The eventual healing takes place when 'normal' life goes on and when distress gets slowly changed to sadness.
- Do things together, have some special family outings that are fun.
your older child
- If you are relatively calm and available, this in itself will be of great support to your older child. It may be that their world is rocked to its foundations when the unthinkable happened and someone they knew finished their life forever.
- It would also help them if they see your feelings of sadness, anger etc. (if they are not out of control). This will give them reassurance that if they perhaps thought of killing themselves, you would definitely be extremely distressed.
- Your child may need to talk a lot to you about the details of the incident itself. If they witnessed the death or know intimately someone who witnessed the death, this in itself is traumatic and they should be receiving some professional help. However, revisiting the experience frequently may not help and can make the feelings worse.
- While it is important that your teenager talks about the death and their feelings about it, it is also important to protect the younger children from it dominating family life. Try to arrange individual time with your older child on a regular basis, where you will get opportunities to talk, or opportunities not to talk but be together – eg. offer to drive them places, or go and watch sport.
- The question "how are you feeling about Jack's death?" may bring only a grunt initially, but your teenager knows that you know how important it is and how big it is in their lives. Sometimes teenagers talk more to their friends than their parents.
- Your question as to how they are feeling may bring anger as a response, anger directed towards you, of the "stop asking me stupid questions" variety. While it is unacceptable for teenagers to be abusive, try to understand that they may be feeling great anger about what has happened and you may be the only person in the world to whom they can express it. Not many teenagers who are under stress can say "I am angry about....". When we are young we often just lash out. Keep trying and don't lose your cool if you can help it.
- Make sure that your teenagers know that they are not responsible for what the person did.
- Encourage your teenager to go to the funeral or take part in any rituals to mark the life and death of the young person. It is important that young people get together to share their feelings about their dead companion and take comfort in each other.
- However, it is also important they don't overwhelm themselves with the strength of their feelings. You need to keep an ear to the ground as to how they are managing the issue as a group.
- If a teenager is going through a hard time emotionally, it is sometimes sustaining for the young person if you go back to some of the ways you showed your caring when they were younger, for example, making hot drinks, favourite foods, and cuddling, (if they will accept it).
to watch for with teens
If you feel that your teenager:
- has withdrawn significantly
- is talking a lot less
- is not mixing with friends
- appears constantly angry
- talks obsessively about death
you need to seek some professional advice about how best to help him.
It is a very difficult thing to tell a child about suicide because it introduces for the first time the notion of someone taking their own life. We all instinctively want to protect our children from this reality.
However, most of the time it is best to tell the basic truth about a death of any sort. Even young children often know when they are not being told the whole story, and the anxiety that goes with this can be greater than that attached to the difficulties of the truth.
Follow these guidelines
- Tell the bare simple truth first with no detail, eg. "one of Matthew's friends died today and we all feel sad."
- Stick to your daily routines. Routine is very reassuring for young children.
- Answer questions as your child asks them - again as simply as you can. Children need their questions answered before they can move on.
- Answer honestly. Children trust parents in many ways and if they find that you have not told them the truth it can damage their trust and their confidence in you.
- Be careful not to expose your younger child to the discussions of adults and older children. This way they can deal with as much as they are able to by asking you questions when they are ready.
- Allow them to draw or play out their understanding of the event.
If your children are of school age, they might ask the question you are afraid to answer, "how did Jack die?" The question about whether someone actually meant to kill themself is a difficult one. It is hard for us to know whether or not young people truly understand what they are doing when they end their life, and it is very likely that most young people who kill themselves do not fully appreciate the consequences of their action. If you have an answer that you feel comfortable with, use that.
If you don't, you could say something like, "Jack made his body stop working", or "Jack had a special illness in his head and he wanted to make the pain go away". We can safely consider that extreme depression and despair in the young is a special illness. Whatever you chose to say, try to protect your young child from imagining that it is about to happen to them or their brother or sister.
watch for with young children
Young children are generally less vulnerable to events outside the family, unless it is an event that has strongly affected their parents who provide them with security.
If, however, the event is close to the family and has shaken all the members, youngsters will be sensitive to the depth of family feeling. They are more likely to express their worries through their behaviour such as:
- wetting the bed
- waking up at night
- having difficulty getting to sleep
- regressing to earlier behaviours, such as wanting a dummy or comforter.
If this is the case for your youngsters and you can comfort them, don't worry too much, but if the symptoms persist, get advice from a health professional.
- One of the ways you can help yourself and your family is by contributing to the community that has been affected by the tragedy, be that the school community, the local community or extended family group.
- If you know the family of the dead person, do something practical to help if you can. Take around a cooked meal or offer to pick up or drop off children. Grief is physically exhausting and it is hard to keep life going around for those living.
- If it is the school community, ring to see what you can do, even if you have limited time. The teachers will be coping with their own feelings as well as trying to care for their students, and your volunteer services may save their valuable energy.
If we want our children to understand about supporting others and being supported in their difficult times, we need to demonstrate what caring for each other through difficult times means.
For more information see the 'Related topics' list - located at the top left of this page.
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.