In many ways, the real work in supporting a young person following the suicide of a loved one comes during that youth’s process of healing. In this regard, there are four significant elements of that healing process to bear in mind:
- Need for space to heal
- Need for open dialogue
- Address reminders of loss
- Manage return to school
Create a Space to Heal
A major point of consideration after a loved one commits suicide is to create a space for young people to heal. There are a number of important elements associated with the creation of a meaningful space to heal.
Listen Without Judgment
Adults can be quick to give advice, render opinions, and even make judgments when a young person is in the midst of his or her own healing process after the death of a loved one, including a person who committed suicide. A key element of creating a safe space for a young person to heal is simply listening. There is no need to constantly give a child a piece of advice, render opinions, let alone make judgments.
If a child asks for advice, give it. Otherwise, the key strategy in creating a meaningful space to heal is to listen without judgment. Make sure a child knows you are available to listen to them anytime. And, then make sure you truly are consistently available to listen.
The suicide of a loved one, particularly an immediate family member, naturally throws existing routines into chaos. A key to creating a safe place for a young person to heal is to reestablish routines. Some of these routines will be different, particularly if an immediate family member has died.
Routines create a sense of safety and security. They are particularly important in the aftermath of the death of a loved one, particularly when the death was the result of suicide.
Let Young Person Make Choices
Allowing young people the ability to make choices provide them with a practical sense of control over their lives following the suicide of a loved one. Young people may feel a sense of life being out of control when someone they love commits suicide.
Of course, decisions should be age appropriate. Bear in mind that even allowing a young child the opportunity to make decisions about what clothes to wear can provide to be empowering in this type of situation.
Create New Family Rituals
If the suicide involved an immediate family member, the development of new rituals for holidays and celebrations can prove to be a crucial component of the healing process. By definition, the loss of a family member changes the manner in which holidays and the like are celebrated. Creating new rituals can be a positive experience for the entire family, including children of any age.
Maintain Open Dialogue
Open, honest dialogue between parents and children is always important. Open dialogue must be maintained in the aftermath of a suicide death of a family member or other loved one.
Why Did This Happen?
One primary question to be heard from a child, or a teen, is certain to be: why did this happen? An adult needs to provide an honest, age-appropriate answer to this query. For example, if the person who took his or her life suffered from depression, that fact can be conveyed to a child in a direct, honest, and age-appropriate manner.
Am I Somehow Responsible?
Sadly, a child is apt to worry that he or she somehow was responsible for the suicide of a family member. Even if this question is not vocalized, a safe assumption is that a child harbors guilt that he or she somehow is responsible for the suicidal death of a family member, at least on some level.
A child must be reassured that he or she is not responsible in any manner for the suicide of a family member. This reassurance must be forthcoming going forward into the future as well.
What Should I Say If Asked How the Person Died?
Once again, two points come into play when an adult is asked by a child how a suicide victim died. The response must be age appropriate. The response must be honest.
Evading or fabricating does a child no good in the short and long term. As is discussed elsewhere, graphic details are unnecessary.
Deal With Reminders of Loss
In the aftermath of a suicide, there are certain items that will remind survivors of the loss. Deliberate consideration must be made about what to do with these items and about how to involve children and teens in the process.
Possessions of Loved One
Whenever a person dies an untimely death, the question of what to do with his or her possessions arises. Indeed, whenever a person passes on, addressing possession is an issue.
Addressing what to do with possessions is more complicated when the deceased individual committed suicide. With that said, a child may like to have (and may benefit from) having certain possessions that belonged to a loved one prior to his death.
In the end, determining what to do with possessions depends upon the specific facts and circumstances of the situation at hand. Moreover, determining what to do with the possessions of a victim of suicide is not something that needs to be immediately undertaken.
The question of whether a suicide note should be shared with a child depends on a number of factors. Chief among them is the maturity level of the child, as has been discussed elsewhere.
With that noted, the decision to share a suicide note with a child need not be made immediately. There is absolutely no reason to deliberate slowly about sharing a suicide note with a surviving child.
In the final analysis, the consideration needs to focus on what, if anything, of value, can come from sharing the note. This is contrasted with the potential for harm that could arise by sharing a suicide note.
Manage Return to School
Another major issue that must be addressed following the suicide of a loved one, particularly a family member, is managing a child’s return to school. There are a number of elements to the overall process of managing a young person’s return to school in the aftermath of a suicide in the family.
When Should a Child Return to School?
The actual timing of a child’s return to school is a primary consideration. There exists no hard and fast answer as to when your child should return to school following the suicide of a family member (or other loved one).
Speaking broadly, there are two categories of children when it comes to school. First, there are young people who enjoy school and take comfort from being in that environment. Second, there are others who don’t respond to school in that positive of a manner. How a child views school is fundamental to determining when the time has arrived for he or she to return.
Managing the return to school requires an open dialogue and ongoing discussion with the young person. An older child is likely to have a firmer idea about when he or she wants to go back to school. Open dialogue is vital to determining a child’s general frame of mind in regard to matters like going back to school after the suicide of a family member.
Work With School Staff
The return of your child back to school necessitates coordinating the process with school staff. Depending on the age of your child, and the type of school he or she attends (public or private), this coordination may involve different individuals at the school.
Appropriate staff members need to be made aware of what has happened. They should also be advised about how your child generally is coping with the loss of a loved one by suicide.
Assist Your Child in Preparing to Respond to Questions
One major issue that needs to be addressed is working with your child on how he or she will respond to questions from peers and others regarding the suicide of a family member. You can assist your child in formulating an answer that he or she is most comfortable.
The range of possible answers includes a direct answer stating that a family member took his or her own life. At the other end of the spectrum is a response that sets forth that your child doesn’t want to discuss the matter. “I don’t want to talk about it” is an entirely appropriate response.
Social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, is both a blessing and a curse for young people. You need to keep this duality in mind as you assist in managing your child’s return to school.
You will also want to assist your child in using social media after a family member commits suicide. This includes formulating answers to questions or statements made about a loved one’s suicide. You also need to ensure that your child is comfortable coming to you should he or she experience anything upsetting on social media related to the loss of a family member.