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Explaining Suicide To Children

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Dear Ones,

I’m so terribly sorry to learn of the circumstances that brought each one of you to this forum; as a bereaved child myself, I have twice walked the path that you are walking now, and I know how difficult and painful it can be. Please accept my deepest sympathy and know that I am thinking of you all.

Since two of you (who've posted under the topic, "I Lost My Dad on Nov 12/04") have lost your parents to suicide and you both have young children in your families, I thought it important that I share some useful information about that subject with you (and with any of our other members and visitors who may be reading this).

As you already know, suicide is one of the most difficult kinds of death, and its impact on the family left behind is enormous.

Along with the social stigma attached to it, in the wake of a suicide attempt or an actual suicide by a family member, most families struggle with unimaginable feelings of recrimination, confusion, self-doubt, guilt, betrayal and anger. In an effort to protect their children from it, some families go to great lengths to avoid the reality of suicide, thus refusing to talk about it with the children or even to admit that it happened.

Yet children are experts at reading their parents’ moods (body language, facial expressions, tone of voice). They know intuitively when something is wrong, even if they’re not sure what it is. They also pick up which subjects are “taboo” in a family (when parents act uncomfortable or reluctant to discuss a topic, or when they evade or change a subject, for example).

It’s important for parents to be aware of the serious risks of withholding the truth, acting evasive, offering unrealistic explanations or lying to children about a suicide in the family. Children may overhear conversations between adults or other children, both within and outside their own home. They may observe their own parents’ behavior and reactions, get a sense that they’re not being told the whole story, then draw their own conclusions about what happened, even if those conclusions are wrong. Even years later, children who discover that they’ve been lied to are left with a powerful conclusion: “If my parents lied to me about a matter of this importance, what else have they lied to me about?”

Far better that children be told the truth, simply and honestly by someone who loves them, rather than letting them hear about a suicide outside their home. Being honest with children teaches them to trust, and most especially to trust their parents.

When explaining suicide to children, here is what one expert* recommends:

•If the suicide was intentional (there is no doubt that the person planned to succeed), you might say, “Sometimes a person’s body gets sick and doesn’t work right. Sometimes a person’s mind doesn’t work right. He can’t see things clearly and he feels the only way to solve this problem is by ending his life. That’s what happened here . . .”

•If the suicide was accidental (e.g., due to a drug or alcohol overdose), you might say, “Sometimes people take pills to relax, or to get to sleep, or to try to block out their problems. These pills make a person’s body slow down, but too many make the body stop working. We don’t know that he wanted to die, but that’s what happened.”

•If you’re talking to an older child, you might offer more information: “He had a very serious problem and he went through a period of weakness. If he had given himself time, he wouldn’t have found it necessary to kill himself. This was the worst solution he could have chosen. But we have to try to understand him; he wasn’t thinking clearly when he did it. You might be feeling angry with him – that it’s unfair to you for him to have chosen this solution. That’s okay; it’s human to feel angry at a time like this.”

•One of the feelings the child may be suffering from after a suicide is guilt. It’s extremely important to let the child know that if a person really wanted to kill himself, there’s nothing anyone could have done to stop him; somehow he would have found a way . . . much of the time, those closest to a suicide are the most surprised. So often we hear, “She was the last person in the world I would have expected to do that.”

•Anger is an emotion that’s naturally associated with death . . . With suicide the anger is sometimes tougher to direct; it tends to bounce all over, at the dead person’s friends, at the other members of the family, at the psychiatrist. Let the child vent that anger, but make sure it’s aimed in the right direction – at the person who killed himself. It is natural and healthy to feel angry at being abandoned by a loved one who has committed suicide . . . “Look, you have a right to . . . be angry. Being angry at someone you love doesn’t mean that you don’t love them.” Reassure the child that you will not abandon him in this way: “Don’t worry; I would never do that to you. I would never kill myself. I’m really angry at him [too] because he dumped on us. He was a desperate man, he couldn’t see any other way out.”

•[it is important to emphasize] that the person who committed suicide chose the wrong way to solve his problems. Other people have problems and they don’t kill themselves. Don’t glorify the dead person – make a therapeutic split between him and the survivors. “It takes more courage to live. That he opted for a different way is his problem.”

•Besides guilt and anger, children will also probably have to cope with the stigma associated with suicide. Many of us have been told since childhood that people who commit suicide go to hell. Others figure the person was crazy and that the rest of the family must be too. The family members who are left are traumatized, their stability shaken. [As one boy observed after returning to school following his mother’s suicide,] “I was no longer a normal kid . . . It’s like you’re a bit of a freak because of what’s happened in your family.”

•A child gets several different messages [concerning] his or her own worth. “I am not loveable enough for him to have hung around for.” A second perceived message may be that he or she is a loser . . . “The child may feel he is being told, ‘Look, kid, I couldn’t make it and neither can you.’” . . . When you break the news to a child that a person has committed suicide, you have to change these perceived messages around so that the child can regain his own sense of self-worth.

•Openness in talking about suicide removes some of the magic and mystery that teenagers find so appealing; it also helps break the impulse to “follow the leader.”

•Try to handle suicide as conventionally as possible, mourning it as you would any other death, with a funeral and open grieving for the dead person. This will take some of the horror and stigma away. If you allow a child to go to the funeral home, to talk about the dead person, and look at him and touch him if he wants to, he’ll be better able to confront the death and start to grieve.

•Trying to pretend that the person never existed, or that the harm done to the family is so devastating that the person should never be talked about again, will only hurt the survivors more, especially the children. They need to know that trust exists in the family, no matter what trauma they’ve been through; as always, talking about the problem and the feelings everyone is experiencing will help them to better cope with the crisis.

*Source: How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide, by Dan Schaefer & Christine Lyons

For further information on this important subject, please go to the Links page of my Grief Healing Web site, click on the category entitled Suicide Loss, and follow some of the links listed there. See also the category labeled Child, Adolescent Grief.

Wishing you peace and healing,

Marty T

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