10 Things I've Learned Supporting Children Through Suicide Loss
By Intermountain Healthcare
May 31, 2017
Updated Nov 17, 2023
5 min read
Guest post from Janae Sharp.
My children were 8, 5 and 3 when their father died. I learned a lot about how children heal while caring for them these past two years. Some things I’ve done well and some I’ve absolutely failed at. Throughout this process, here are the top ten things I’ve learned.
1. There are age appropriate responses to death.
My children had a very literal view of death. They speculated about heaven and where dad is. After my son watched Frankenweenie he asked if dad was a skeleton or a zombie. It's important that kids be allowed to say whatever is on their mind, ask questions, and be given truthful age appropriate responses. I found online resources helpful for understanding what death meant to my children.
2. Grief after suicide comes and goes without warning.
For me grief is like a fog. Some days I am fine, while there are times the fog rises so high and thick I can’t see. Tell children it's ok to be sad and happy. They don’t have to be sad all the time and being happy doesn’t mean they didn’t love their person. It’s important they express their thoughts and feelings. Repeat back what they say. “It sounds like you feel sad that dad is gone today.” Give them age appropriate and honest responses, which for me was often “I don’t know how to answer that question, but I love you.”
3. You are not alone. Community groups provide Healing.
“It is so important to realize that over 41,000 Americans die by suicide every year. You are not alone in your grief and there are people who have been through it who can help” Julie Cerel, PhD. President, American Association of Suicidology.
My daughter came home from school crying one day because she wanted to know “other kids who understood what she was feeling.” Social support has a profound impact on healing for adults and children. After John’s death my neighbors and friends were a huge support. We also received counseling services through our local church group and joined the Sharing Place. Employers, church groups, local charities, insurance providers, and even online communities can provide support. Check out Utah Suicide Prevention and national online resources like the Dougy Center.
4. Schools can be partners in healing and support.
School counselors are a great help and some schools have grief groups for students. Schools can also create education plans to provide assistance for emotional support during periods of grief. Make educators and counselors aware of your child’s loss to ensure they are supported and that are given special arrangements if necessary. My daughter was given a special pass to get out of class if she needed some alone time or to see a counselor.
5. Find way to describe suicide death to children even though it’s hard.
I told the kids John died in a fire and then avoided bringing it up again for a full year. Then after my daughter found her father’s obituary online and left a comment about how much she loved him, I didn’t want to lie to again. Our counselor recommended describing mental illness, explaining that one’s mind becomes so sick they lose perspective and choose to end their life. It was a short and uncomfortable conversation, but it helped me to recognize that I had no way to make this conversation “right”.
Julie Cerel, PhD and president of the American Association of Suicidology emphasizes honesty and age appropriate conversations. “Even though you feel like you are doing the best for their children by not telling them the truth, the reality is that they will find out it was a suicide. So it is important to tell them about suicide in an age-appropriate way”
Suicide carries stigma and can be difficult to describe to children. Use online resources, write down your story, and set yourself a deadline to discuss. Any adult trying to explain suicide to children should read the following resources from the National Association of Social Workers and researcher Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW.
6. It’s ok to co-grieve with children and let them see you do it.
Parents want to “be strong” for their kids during loss. I waited a day to tell the kids that John passed. The first thing my daughter said was, “I knew something was wrong”. I want to be strong for my kids and always available to talk about their feelings, but I couldn’t handle everything alone. Recognize when you need someone else to be there with your children, and reach out for help. It is healthy for children to see that adults also have a hard time with suicide loss and need help too. Let your children know that they are not alone.
7. Create and carry out memorials and traditions.
Create a family tradition to memorialize the death. We write notes to dad and bring them to the gravesite. Others make quilts or set up savings for children. Traditions and memorials help children deal with loss.
8. Suicide loss is permanent.
Most support following death is very temporary. And while acute grief does not last forever, loss will be hard at unpredictable times. The grief will reemerge as the kids age and experience milestones like graduations, birthdays, weddings, etc...
9. Participation in sports is healing.
My daughter joined a local triathlon group right before her father died. Practice started two weeks after her dad died and she had a hard time. I think every single triathlon practice her coach saw her cry. He listened to her say she was giving up cycling because her dad died. After talking to her coach she decided it was ok to ride her bike again. I am grateful for those coaches. Sports can help people through grief.
10. There is power in community. You are not alone.
There are others who have lost someone to suicide and understand the struggles of mental illness. Dr. Julie Cerel Mentioned the “American Association of Suicidology is a place that survivors of suicide loss can come together with researchers, clinicians and attempt survivors to figure out how to decrease suicides and help those left behind.” There are so many people who want to support loss survivors. Find us and together we can make things better for other loss survivors and fight against mental illness.
Help Is Available
If you or someone you know is in a life threatening emergency or in immediate danger of harming themselves, please call 911.
If you are requesting help for a mental health crisis when calling 911 ask for a CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) Officer- they are specially training to help with someone in a mental health crisis.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255