this week i am so excited to share a guest post written by susan coale, lcsw-c and sarah montgomery, lcsw-c. susan and sarah work for the chesapeake life center, a nonprofit based in maryland that provides support services and education to people who have experienced a trauma and/or loss of a loved one. these women are part of a team that offers counseling to children who have lost a loved one to suicide, and my heart goes out to them for doing such important work. together they wrote an amazing book called supporting children after suicide loss – a guide for parents and caregivers. this message resonates with me on a deep level. even though it can be difficult, i believe that we need to talk to kids about any type of loss but especially about suicide. i am so inspired by their work that i donate a majority of any proceeds i receive from my writing and public speaking directly to the chesapeake life center. i am honored that they were willing to write a post for bluelightblue. please read and share – i hope you benefit as much as i have from their expertise and compassion.
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. below you will find 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.
- take care of yourself first—the airplane 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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 like 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.
- 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 that others can do, so that you can be with your children.
- 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 that 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.”
- check in with your child to see what she understands. “ kiara, i know i have explained some of the circumstances of your uncles death—can you tell me what you understand?”
- if your child is on social media, do monitor their sites. what is being shared? what kind of feedback is he receiving? encourage your child to share very limited details on the means of the death and avoid blaming others. which brings us to the next tip…
- 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.
- 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 that that 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.
want to read more? please refer to supporting children after suicide loss: a guide for parents and caregivers” by sarah montgomery and susan coale, 2015. available on amazon.
chesapeake life center provides grief and trauma support and education to children, adults, families and members of the community. it is a program service of hospice of the chesapeake, a nonprofit agency serving the community for over thirty years. in addition to grief counseling and support groups, they provide an annual weekend bereavement camp for children and teens. learn more at www.chesapeakelifecenter.org.