How to Talk to Children About a Suicide Loss

How to Talk to Children About a Suicide Loss

When a loved one or community member dies by suicide, the entire community of survivors is powerfully affected. Children, as part of this community, may be deeply impacted and need adult guidance. 

It is normal to feel nervous and uncomfortable when broaching the topic of suicide loss with children. How could it not be? Suicide is a complicated topic that brings feeling of sadness, regret and many unanswered questions. Here are a few guidelines to follow when talking with children about suicide, whether it be the death of close family member or friend, or others in your child’s sphere or community.

How to talk to children about a suicide loss.

  1. Take care of yourself first.

    The plane analogy is an apt one — put on your own “oxygen” mask before placing one on your child. Take a couple of deep breaths and give yourself a few moments to collect your thoughts.

  2. Be aware of your own feelings.

    When you talk to your child about a difficult topic, it is important to be aware of your own feelings. Suicide loss can bring of a myriad of feelings including shock, regret, sadness and more. If you are feeling, for example, great sadness, name it. “Sweetie, I need to talk with you about something very difficult and I am feeling a big sadness right now.”

  3. Know your audience.

    Keep in mind your child’s age and level of understanding. Younger children will need a more concrete explanation of death and suicide: “Death means the body has stopped working” and “suicide is when someone makes their own body stop working.” Teenagers can understand more of the subtleties of language, but still keep it clear. Refrain from using the term “committed suicide” and rather use the words “died by suicide.”

  4. Speak about the person who died in a caring and respectful manner.

    Sometimes the confusion that surrounds a suicide death leads us to sound frustrated and angry when speaking of the person who has died. While these feelings are perfectly normal, children take all of this in, and may feel as though they have done something to provoke that anger or to cause the death. Speaking respectfully of the deceased helps maintain a sense of calm and gives the child space to express their own feelings.

  5. As much as possible, keep a routine and spend side-by-side time with your child.

    Your child will need you around, even if he does not admit it. Yes, this is often easier said than done, as a sudden death by definition disrupts routine and often pulls adults to additional challenges and tasks. Utilize your support system to help with tasks others can do, so you can be with your children.

  6. Remember, telling the truth does not mean sharing all the details at once.

    Whatever you share should be factual, but does not need to be all of the available information. Use restraint in sharing. If you are unable to say “suicide” at the beginning (you are not alone in this) start with a building block of truth — “Nancy died suddenly last night…” — and then build from there. If a child has a question you don’t know how to answer, it is fine to say, “Good question. I am not sure how to answer that question at this time — but I will get back to you.”

  7. Check in with your child to see what she understands.

    “Kiara, I know I have explained some of the circumstances of your uncle’s death — can you tell me what you understand?”

  8. If your child is on social media, do monitor their sites.

    What is being shared? What kind of feedback is he receiving?

  9. Help your child understand the distinction between “private” and “secret.” 

    For instance, if we have an upset stomach or itchy rash it is not a secret nor is it shameful, but it may be considered private. Likewise, the circumstances of a death are not a secret, but may be considered private. The farther away someone is from a family or situation, often the less information they need to know.

  10. Be sure to remind the child that if they themselves ever struggle with their feelings, there is always help available.

    You may want them to identify the people who are available to lend a listening ear during difficult times. It is also helpful to work with them to discover what safe activities bring them a sense of comfort and control when they are distressed, such as drawing pictures of their feelings, petting their cat, or sleeping with a beloved stuffed animal.


About the Authors: Sarah Montgomery LCSW-C and Joy McCrady LGPC

Sarah Montgomery LCSW-C is the Coordinator of Children and Family Programs at the Chesapeake Life Center at the Hospice of the Chesapeake. She has over 20 years clinical experience providing individual, family, and group counselling in a variety of settings including school-based, outpatient psychiatry and community-based organizations. She holds a BA from Williams College and an MSW from University of Maryland School of Social Work. Sarah has also co-written three books Helping Your Depressed Teenager (1994) and the Clinical Uses of Drawings (1996) and recently Supporting Children After a Suicide Loss: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers (2015) with Susan Coale LCSW-C.

 

 

Susan Coale, LCSW-C is the Clinical Manager of Bereavement Services for Chesapeake Life Center at Hospice of the Chesapeake. A licensed clinical social worker with over thirty years’ experience, Susan has worked in a variety of settings, including hospitals, child welfare and private practice before joining Chesapeake Life Center. She was part of the team that developed Camp Nabi for grieving children and Phoenix Rising for grieving teens. Susan’s particular area of focus is working with those whose loved one has died by suicide.

One Comment

Diane

This article was very helpful and came to me at just the right time so I am very grateful to you for that. You do great work.

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Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.
Some days are great days. We want to squeeze every delicious moment out of them and keep them forever somewhere safe and reachable where our loved days and precious things are kept. Then there are days that are truly awful - the days we want to fold in half, and then in half again and again and again until those days are too small to hurt us any more. But days are like that aren’t they. For better or worse they will come and they will go. Sometimes the effects of them will stay – the glow, the growth, the joy, the bruises – long after those days have gone. And despite what I know to be true - that these are the days that will make us braver, stronger, kinder and wiser, sometimes I don’t feel any of that for a while. I just see the stretch marks. But that’s the way life is, isn’t it. It can be hard and beautiful all in sequence and all at once.
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One of the tough things about being human is that to live wholeheartedly means to open ourselves to both - the parts that are plump with happiness, and the parts that hurt. We don’t have to choose which one can stay. They can exist together. Not always in equal measure, and not always enough of the beautiful to make the awful feel tolerable, or to give it permission to be, but they can exist together - love through loss, hope through heartache. The big memory-making times that fatten life to full enough, and the ones that come with breakage or loss. The loss matters and the joy matters. The existence of either doesn't make the other matter any less. 
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What I also know to be true is that eventually, the space taken up by loss or heartache changes space for enough of the beautiful to exist with it. This is when we can start to move with. Sadness still, perhaps, but with hope, with courage, with strength and softness, with openness to what comes next. Because living bravely and wholeheartedly doesn't mean getting over loss or denying the feelings that take our breath away sometimes. It means honouring both, and in time, moving with.♥️

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