Chapter Three: Address the Immediate Aftermath of Suicide
How to Inform a Young Person of a Death by Suicide
Addressing the immediate aftermath of a suicide is particularly challenging. There is a number of strategies you should consider employing when reaching out to a child or teen in the immediate aftermath of a loved one taking his or her life.
Tell the Truth
The first tactic that you need to bear in mind in addressing the immediate aftermath of a suicide is to tell the truth. With that noted, the explanation of a suicide needs to be age appropriate.
In order to be able to honestly communicate with children in an age appropriate manner about suicide, you need to know the developmental stages of understanding for children. The Child Development Institute has delineated these stages:
- Preschool children mostly see death as temporary, reversible and impersonal. In stories they read or watch characters will often suddenly rise up alive again after being totally destroyed. It’s not surprising they don’t understand, yet it is appropriate for their age level to think this way.
- Between the ages of five and nine, most children are beginning to see that all living things eventually die and that death is final. They tend to not relate it to themselves and consider the idea that they can escape it. They may associate images with death, such as a skeleton. Some children have nightmares about them.
- From nine through to adolescence, children to begin to understand fully that death is irreversible and that they too will die some day.
Do Not Wait
It might seem like something of a cliché, but you definitely do not want your children to learn about a loved one’s suicide from someone else. In this day and age, with communication being ubiquitous, you need to expect your children learning about a loved one’s suicide in very short speed. Therefore, you must not wait in providing honest, accurate, age appropriate information about the death of a loved one at his or her own hands.
The information provided to a child needs to be complete, with a focus on being age appropriate. The failure to provide complete information about a loved one’s death by suicide can result in negative consequences for the child that include:
- A child filling in obvious gaps regarding what happened, the child’s own imagination coming up with thoughts even more troubling than what actually occurred.
- A child concluding information is being withheld because he or she somehow bears responsibility for what happened.
Select a Safe Place to Talk
Select a safe, comfortable, familiar place to explain to a child that a loved one has died by suicide. More often than not, this will be a child’s home or the residence of someone else in the family that a child has a connection.
If for some reason a loved one dies in a hospital from taking his or her life, letting a child know of the passing at the medical center is appropriate. However, waiting to explain that the death was the result of suicide can be the advisable course for many children.
Avoid Graphic Details
No need exists to discuss the graphic details of a suicide with a child. Indeed, arguably no need exists to discuss graphic details with other adults.
If a child asks how a person took his or her life, making a basic statement about what happened is acceptable. However, a pivot should occur from making a basis statement about means used to a discussion focused on coping with feelings that include:
Age Specific Recommendations
There are some basic thoughts and tactics that you need to bear in mind when it comes to providing age appropriate information to a young person about the suicide of a loved one.
Pre-Schooler (Age Three to Five)
Children in this age group generally do not have a firm understanding of the permanent nature of death. Thus, you can expect repeated questions about when the loved one who has committed suicide is “coming back.” The key is to explain simply, calmly, and lovingly that the loved one will not return.
Early Elementary School (Age Six to Eight)
Children in this general age group do have an understanding of the permanence of death. Children in this age group are more prone to somehow blame themselves for the death of a loved one by suicide. Emphasis must consistently be placed upon making it clear to the young person that he or she is in no way at fault for what occurred.
Later Elementary School (Age Nine to 12)
Children in this age group clearly understand the permanence of death. Children between nine and 12 years of age are highly likely to have specific questions about suicide and the circumstances of a loved one’s death in this manner. As discussed previously, the discussion with a child in this age group should be candid and honest. Graphic information about the manner of death is not appropriate, however.
Generally speaking, when it comes to discussing the suicide of a loved one with a teen, he or she can be approached in a manner similar to an adult, with a few considerations to bear in mind. First, let the teen have his or her space. Don’t pressure a teen to talk about a suicide after basic information about the death initially is provided.
Keep in mind that a teen’s primary support system is his or her peers. Thus, make it clear to a teen that you are available to talk to him or her. However, encourage a teen to converse with a friend or even another adult with whom he or she may be comfortable.
Funeral and Related Considerations
There are some other considerations that come into play in the immediate aftermath of the loss of a loved one by suicide. Some of these matters directly involved a child or children related to otherwise associated with the person who took his or her life.
Should Young Person View the Body?
There are a number of factors that come into play when it comes to a young person viewing a body. As a preliminary matter, the manner of death may make a viewing a moot question.
The first consideration when it comes to a young person viewing the deceased individual is the maturity level of the child. The actual age of a child is not always the appropriate guide to ascertaining whether a child should view the remains of loved one who took his or her life. In the end, a subjective consideration must be made regarding a particular child’s maturity when it comes to viewing a body.
The second consideration is what the child desires to do in this regard. If a child is mature enough to view the remains, a determination must be made as to whether a child wants to do so. No one – child or adult – should ever be forced to view the remains of a deceased person. If a child doesn’t want to view the remains of any deceased person, including an individual who committed suicide, that desire must be honored.
Should Young Person Attend the Funeral?
The question of a child’s maturity level also comes into play when addressing the issue of funeral attendance. As is the case with viewing the remains, a child’s wishes about attending the funeral must also be taken into account. A child, no matter his or her age, should be forced to attend the funeral of a loved one who took his or her life.
When it comes to an older child, particularly a teenager, encouraging the young person to attend the funeral of a suicide victim is acceptable. Pressuring attendance is not.
Keep in mind that a child, particularly a teenager, may be struggling with some very intense emotions in the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide – including anger and even shame. Forcing a child to attend a funeral when facing these emotions can place a young person in an even more troublesome or challenging emotional state.