At a Glance:
· Suicide bereaved children may experience anxiety, anger and shame. Allow for a range of feelings.
· For children to adjust to a death of any sort they need a realistic and coherent understanding of what has happened. Secrecy can undermine the basic trust you want to establish with your child.
· Effective communication that is clear, age-appropriate, and honest serves to reassure children that someone will take care of their physical and emotional needs.
· Children will continue to grieve as they encounter new stages of their development.
· Children grieve differently than adults, often in "doses."
· Be alert to children blaming themselves for the loss: “Nothing you said or did caused this.”
· Do not hesitate to reach out to a grief counselor for help for either you or your child.
Particularly following a suicide there can be a desire by adults to protect children from the truth and hide from them what has happened. However, for children to adjust to the death of a parent they need a realistic and coherent understanding of what has happened. If they do not have this they will tend to fill in the gaps with their imagination which can be unsettling and create anxiety.
Children will tend to be aware that something is happening that they don't know about; they may hear half-truths or exaggerated details from other children. For these reasons it is advisable that children are given information from a trusted adult who cares for them.
Effective communication that is clear and honest helps to reassure children that someone will take care of them physically and emotionally. It also helps to create a renewed sense of safety, security and trust. It is preferable to use language that is familiar to the child, that they will understand and that is comfortable for you.
Children tend to grieve differently than adults. Their grief will be intermittent, they will move in and out of the experience, and at times, may appear unaffected by what has happened. This may simply indicate that they are processing the event in their own way. It is also important to remember that children will continue to grieve as they encounter new stages of their development. This means that as their emotional and cognitive abilities develop they will express their grief in new ways and they will have different questions which may require different or more complex answers. You will have this conversation many times over the initial weeks and months, as well as throughout the child’s life.
Children generally learn to grieve by watching and learning from a significant adult. If you are having difficulties because of your own experience of grief and trauma it is important to seek some support from family, friends or available support services.
The sense of being out of control emotionally is often a part of grief that may overwhelm or frighten some kids. Grieving is normal and healthy, therefore assisting your child to accept this and find constructive ways to express and experience grief is important, particularly through talking, movement and exercise, and creative outlets.
Things for Parents to Know from Grief Experts:
- It is rare that experts see mentally-stable children fanaticize about death or suicide after talking about it or learning of a loved one’s passing, nor do they try to hurt themselves. Talking about suicide doesn’t implant ideas. By talking about it with children proactively, they know they can trust you and come to you with their concerns. It might remain mysterious if they are left to wonder or look into it on their own.
- In today's world of rapid communication and social media, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to "shield" your child from the reality of the manner of death. Children as young as four have reported knowing about deaths by suicide that their parents did not know they knew about. It is important this information come from a parent, trusted adult or counselor in an individual or small group situation.
- Unlike adults and older children, young kids don’t have the stigma associated with suicide, so it usually doesn’t feel as shocking to them. At age 5, 6 or 7, they seem less concerned about the method of death and more interested in knowing if the loved one is ever going to come back, or where they might be now.
- With really young kids, experts tend to frame the death as dying from a sickness in the brain, in the same way you might explain a sudden heart attack – although this sickness was there, it may have been unseen by others and then struck suddenly without warning. This sickness is not contagious – you can’t catch it from someone. With older kids, explain that their loved one died on purpose. By around 8 or 9-years old, kids can begin to understand suicide.
- You may begin the conversation by asking your child: “What do you know about suicide?;” “Do you understand the long-term ramifications of suicide?” (such as that it is forever and that family and friends suffer); “What can you do if you or a friend are sad?”
- Kids do Google novel things, so if the suicide story is a public one, showing them the search results could be a part of your discussion, if that feels appropriate.
- Not everything has to come out at once, but can begin whenever the child asks deeper questions about the death. This conversation will become part of the everyday fabric of your child’s experience.
- You may want to inform relatives and friends of your discussions with your child – children will often turn to other adults to verify what you have told them or what they have heard in the community.
- Maintaining this open line of communication and being clued in to the child’s life is important. Letting children know they can talk to you about anything and ask questions and explore options for help with you might help to bring them more comfort.
- It’s always an option to enlist the help of a third party expert to help with this discussion and navigate the child’s questions and concerns.
- Children may exhibit regressive behavior after a death, including clinginess, wanting to sleep with parents, etc. Experts advise parenting to the child's need for security during this time.
At Home The following suggestions may assist you at home.
· be open and honest; use the words 'dead' or 'death'
· keep a calm and cool demeanor, but don’t be afraid to tell your child that this is difficult for you or that you do not know all the answers, especially to the “whys?”
· be aware of what emotions are arising in you as you discuss the death, particularly if you are experiencing anger. Children may interpret an angry voice as meaning you are angry at them, which can lead them to wonder if they may have caused this or done something wrong.
· be honest and open with children about the suicide. Use language the child understands and that you are comfortable with.
· Be aware of the possibility of instilling fear with phrases such as “God wanted him/her with Him,” They are in a better place,” or of romanticizing death or heaven as a place to be free of pain and difficulties.
· to avoid stigma use the word 'died by suicide' or took their life rather than committed suicide. This avoids reference to a crime
· answer facts in short simple sentences without unnecessary detail
· be available to listen and assist with any concerns your child may have
· respect their views with non-judgemental responses
Emotions and Actions
· give comfort, hugs, and reassurance as needed by your child
· stick to day to day routine and schedules as much as possible
· reduce change to a minimum
· take time to prepare them for any further change that may be approaching
· allow your child to express all emotions in a safe way, e.g. find healthy ways to vent anger, it is okay to cry; emotional storms only last a short time.
· you can comfort your child with the concept that a person continues to live on in the hearts and minds of others and that they will never forget them
· be assured that your child does not have to talk about it in order to heal; art, movement, activities that involve the hands such as clay, knitting, baking, building, and imaginative play are ways to integrate and express the confusing thoughts and feelings
reduce electronic use during this time. It does not provide the integration of the limbic brain and pre-frontal cortex needed to process big events, and also teaches children to deal with their pain through escape.
· make time for just being together, take time out, re-establish recreational activities and outings when you can.
Grief Education These points may help you to support your child:
· take time to talk with your child about the person's life, not only their death
· teach your child the importance of making time to eat properly, exercise and rest
· it is okay to have fun, encourage them to be kids, play, explore and laugh
· re-involve the child in chores and responsibilities when they are ready to cope with them again
· reassure them about their short-term goals, let them know you are there to help them find ways to adjust to life without their loved one.
be aware of other triggers for your child, such as anniversaries of previous losses, holidays, etc.
Signs to watch for and enlisting professional help for your child:
• Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself
• Looking for ways to kill oneself, such as searching online, looking in medicine cabinets, knife drawers, etc.
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious or agitated, or behaving recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
**As a precaution, remove all medicines and guns from areas where children may access them