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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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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