Suicide is frequently a sudden, surprising and shocking death that leaves family members reeling in disbelief and heartache. Suicide is akin to lobbing an explosive into the middle of the family. There is enormous collateral damage.
For children, the death of a parent is a traumatic event, which is especially intensified for young children. However, when the death is a suicide, the trauma is heightened even more.
Arguably, suicide is the hardest death to accept. There are so many unanswered questions.
Young children do not readily understand the concept of suicide. They might ask, “What is suicide?” Once the child has some grasp on the meaning of suicide, there will be the inevitable “why?” question that wracks every survivor, young and old, of a suicidal loss.
Suicide opens Pandora’s Box. Children want to understand why their parent made that choice and why their parent did not choose to stay with them. Did I do something to make this happen? Is it my fault? Didn’t Daddy love me enough to want to stay? If I had loved her more, would Mom have stayed?
It’s crucial for children to be given an age-appropriate (i.e., the younger the child means the simpler the response with fewer details), understanding of their parent’s death so that they can begin to make sense of this terrifying loss and, over time, integrate this seminal event into their psyche.
Understanding comes with the knowledge that suicide is predicated on severe pain of all kinds. When we are in serious pain, we will do anything to minimize or eradicate the pain. Suicide is a choice, made at that moment in time, to end the agony of a life. That agony clearly has nothing to do with the child, but the pain of the parent’s life. Suicide is often prompted by haywire neurochemicals, mental illness, profound physical pain, substance abuse and/or trauma. In other words, the parent was under extreme duress, which influenced their thinking and their actions.
Suicide is a mental health issue. With children, it can be helpful to use the idea of sickness because children readily understand this.
At the funeral, the priest said my Daddy died because he was sick. My Daddy didn’t have cancer. The priest said what my Daddy had was a mental illness. He said my Daddy tried very hard not to be sick, but it got the better of him. I liked that the priest said that. I didn’t have to explain it to anybody.
Because suicide is both traumatic and considered complicated grief, there is the possibility that the child could become emotionally frozen, i.e., their emotions are frozen at the time of trauma like a solid block of ice with no movement and no flow. As a result, their development stalls and they can have increased difficulties socially and at school, which can set the stage for long-term repercussions.
To heal from the trauma, loss, and grief, the primary focus is to encourage the child to express their feelings. This can be done through physical activity, arts and writing projects, all things creative and, with older children, involvement in acts of service, like a walk to raise money for mental health resources.
Children of suicide are often very angry: How could you do this to me? Why did you leave me? Because of you, my life is all messed up, why aren’t you here?
They have greater fears and anxiety: How can I remember my Mom better? How can I make sure I never forget my Dad? Will I be left alone?
Children of suicide show more depressive symptoms: Why am I so sad? Will I be this sad forever? When will it stop hurting? You tell me they are in a better place, I want be with them. If I kill myself too, will I see my Mommy again?
They have a pronounced fear of death: You always said I am just like my Daddy, am I going to die this way? Are you going to die too?
There can be denial: Marissa didn’t want to believe it. It couldn’t be true. Not her dad. She told everyone her dad died of a heart attack, but, it was actually a suicide.
All of these feelings make sense because the child’s stability, safety and protection has evaporated. There is no terra firma. Children of suicide are trying to understand a loss that brings grown-ups to their knees. It’s a very challenging path to walk, both for the children and their remaining parent or caregivers.
And not only are the children trying to understand the suicidal death of their parent, there is the additional stress, possible abandonment and rejection due to social stigma, shame and taboo around suicide:
Why is everybody acting so weird? How come nobody wants to talk about my Dad’s death?
What do I tell the kids at school? Why do people look at me funny at school? Or whisper about me and my family? Some of my friends even avoid me now.
Why do I feel all ashamed and embarrassed, I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?
It is not easy to lose a parent under any circumstances, but to lose a parent to suicide is incredibly difficult. Suicide by a parent leaves a very frightened and terrified child who is struggling mightily for emotional survival.
Gently encourage your children to express all of their feelings — the good, the bad and, especially the ugly.
Reassure your bereft little ones that they are not alone. Yes, this is tough. Yes, we are all sad. Yes, it’s ok to laugh at a silly movie tonight and cry tomorrow. There is no perfect way, but by being open, honest and vulnerable with your children, you will navigate this slippery slope.
Above all, show your children that although we cannot control what happens, we can learn how to manage our reactions. It takes time and patience and tenderness to pick up all the pieces of a shattered heart.