By Lauren Schneider, MSW, LCSW
|For very young children|
One of the most challenging types of loss a bereavement counselor or therapist will be faced with is that of a family dealing with a death by suicide. Each member of the family will experience their grief differently depending on a myriad of factors. These factors include the person’s relationship to the deceased, factors regarding the circumstances of the death, previous history of loss, as well personality factors. In addition to their intra-personal responses they may be encountering environmental changes which could include a withdrawal of social support or the “conspiracy of silence”, financial hardships, and so forth.
Words to Use
Suicide: The act of killing yourself so
that your body won’t work anymore.
People who kill themselves often do
so because they feel there is no other
way to solve their problems or to end
the pain they are feeling. Sometimes
they feel hopeless that things will never
get better and that life is not worth
living. But, there is always another answer.
Death: When a person’s body stops
Depression: Extreme feelings of sadness
and hopelessness that lasts a long time.
Guilt: Something we feel when we think
we have done something wrong or are the
cause of something bad happening.
Grief: Natural feelings when someone
close to us has died.
When death is a result of suicide, the task of telling children is even more difficult than for other types of death. The immediate aftermath of the death is a time of confusion and intense emotion for everyone involved and families may seek guidance on what to tell children and how much to involve children in the funerary rituals.
Regardless of the age of the child, it is always important to offer simple, truthful explanations about the cause of the death. Accurate information is crucial to the grieving process, and without the facts children will have difficulty with the first task of mourning, accepting the reality of the death as identified by the leading authority on grief, Dr. J. William Worden. Regardless of age, involving the children in the funerary rituals will also help them with this task. Children will follow the lead of the adults in their life and if adequately prepared for the funeral will generally find the support of their community and rituals to be very comforting.
The following examples are helpful tools for explaining suicide to children and helping them on their journey toward healing:
- First explain, “the person that died had been feeling very, very sad and could not think of any other way to end the pain/sadness.”
- Explain what he/she did to end their life, “she took a whole bottle of pills which made her body stop working and then she died” or “he used a gun to make his body stop working, and then he died.”
- Always end with saying that there was a better way to solve this problem.
- While most people who are depressed are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed. Therefore, for school aged children one might say: “Mommy had a disease called depression which made her feel sad and/or angry. Because of the disease she could not think clearly like we do, so she could not think of any other way to get help or end her pain except to end her own life.”
- Again, conclude by reminding a child there is always someone willing to help and suicide, or the act of making your body stop working, is not the right answer.
- It is important to be both truthful and thorough in explanations while remembering to emphasize that the adolescent is not to blame.
- Developmentally, an adolescent ia on a course of individuating and separating from the family. It is important to remember that expecting them to assume parental or adult responsibilities prematurely because of the absence of the deceased could interfere with this natural and imperative developmental outcome.
Children will eventually learn the truth and it is always preferable for a child to hear the truth from the person they trust most in the safest setting possible. To minimize confusion and anger, this conversation should take place before the child returns to school so they will be prepared for the questions and comments of their peers. If children don’t learn the truth until adulthood, they may feel betrayed by those they trusted.
A child may experience the act of a parental suicide personally. This often affects their sense of self worth and creates feelings of abandonment. Unexpressed anger, guilt and shame can impair the child’s ability to form meaningful relationships in the future. Fortunately, on a positive note, Harvard researcher Phyllis Silverman (2001) found that most childhood grief survivors are able to remain committed in relationships.
Bereavement counselors will often remind child survivors of suicide that the person who died loved them and that the death is not the child’s fault. Another way to help children is to keep memories of happy times alive in conversation, keep photos and personal belongings of the person that died on hand, and by making a memory box or album.