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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During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #adolescence 
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"We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say 'no' sometimes, and if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.❤️" 
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#neurodevelopment #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting

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