Unresolved loss is an underlying reason for a lot of substance misuse/addiction as well as a contributing factor for suicide and suicide attempts.
We think of children as resilient but that doesn’t mean they “get over it.” Grief is not something that just goes away, you simply learn to live with it. If you love someone, it hurts to lose them. Unresolved loss is the result of trying to avoid the grief or going silent on the subject altogether.
I couldn’t avoid the pain of losing Charles when he died by suicide And no other hurt I ever experienced was so devastating. I was also frightened by the prospect of a process I knew nothing about. Did I want to avoid it? Sure I did. That’s just human nature. But I just had to go through it and learn to manage the pain.
So how can you help as a parent?
First of all, you can’t fix this for them. You can’t wipe away the hurt and pain but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.
- Break the silence
- Listen with empathy
- Ask questions
- Create an opportunity for connection
- Go with them to a support group
I often tell parents to start by asking their child, “What was your favorite memory about _____?” “Tell me what made __________ a good friend?” That lets them know you are open to talking about the person. Listening is a highly underrated skill but it’s the core of connection. So lead with your ears.
Make empathetic listening comments like, “I know that hurts.” It’s important not to invalidate feelings. It’s important to let them experience the grief. So comments like, “He is in a better place right now,” just screams, “I’m trying to dismiss your feelings.”
So often, particularly with suicide, everyone is so stunned no one dares to break the silence. People have all kinds of preconceived notions about suicide, most of which are complete myths. Silence is toxic and unhealthy and can often lead to contagion. That’s why it’s important to welcome conversation about that friend.
After the suicide of a friend, your child is going to suffer the coulda woulda shouldas
Signs are always easier to see after. They see one thing or remember one comment that gave them a strange feeling and then all of a sudden, they feel their friend’s suicide is their fault.
The truth is a human took an action in response to irrational emotional and maybe physical pain that can’t be changed or altered. There is no reverse button and our only choice is to go forward. But that doesn’t mean we move on and forget about it.
Your first instinct is to probably explain why that it’s not their fault. And that’s fine.
But do know your child will torture himself with the “it’s my fault” for a while. It’s a process through which all of us who’ve lost someone to suicide go through. Your best bet is to hit the pause button and listen. Encourage that by asking questions like, “Tell me more.” Or “Why do you think it’s your fault?”
Instead of catering to the silence that surrounds a suicide, propose an event of some kind that brings the group of friends together to remember that child. They need that ritual and closure every bit as much as adults do.
Can you get a group of teenagers together for pizza and make the topic of discussion the person that died? They need to talk. They need to try and figure out how to manage the pain. They need to hear how everyone else is blaming themselves, too, so they know they are not alone.
This isn’t something you plan all by yourself but make the offer and let them make the decisions on what the event will look like.
The danger is that this age doesn’t always have the best coping skills for something so monumental. Listening and offering opportunities for connection help young people process the loss. If your child is on a college campus, check into surrounding community supports through the university counseling and student wellness department or community nonprofits like NAMI or AFSP (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention.) I co-facilitate a group listed on AFSP on zoom and many young people participate in this group so don’t hesitate to look into finding a group. Those resources are listed here in our grief section.
Also allowing them to put their grief into action through an event such as planning a walk for suicide prevention or having the kids look into a day at school with therapy dogs. Planting trees and building memorials is not recommended for this age group for many reasons but an active event for a local charity does help kids work through their pain. No one can do this for them. But being there to listen helps.
What to say
- They ask: “Why did she kill herself? Didn’t she know we loved her?”
- You say: “The pain that you’re experiencing in their absence speaks volumes of how deeply you cherished them and still do. That love will never change.”
- You say (alternate): “It’s still an ongoing process for any one of us to fully surrender to the fact that, no matter how smart, loving, and determined we may be, no one can keep someone else alive. I wish our love was enough.”
- You say (alternate): “Suicide is not persona but the result of temporary mental incapacity. From what I know, it has nothing to do with you, the survivor, and everything to do with the person who took their life and their state of mind. At that irrational moment, tunnel vision didn’t allow them to think of you, family, or other friends, only about stopping the pain they felt. It’s like if you were on fire, all you would be able to think about was grabbing a bucket of water to relieve the pain of being burned.”
Self-blame is part of the grief process of a suicide death. Friends will try and convince a person otherwise and, on some level, that grieving person knows that but working through it takes time. Avoid saying: “Don’t feel guilty. You did all you could.” Telling them it’s not their fault invalidates their feelings. But telling them self-blame is part of the grieving process following a suicide sets a tone that this will be something that they will one day forgive themselves for.
- They say: “This is all my fault.”
- You say: “One day you will forgive yourself. Why? Because your loved one would want you to. But right now it’s too raw and too new.”
- You say (alternate): “Right after the death, you have a magnifying glass on all the things you perceived you did wrong and you’ll find it hard to give yourself credit for all the wonderful things you did right. Do think about some of those memories, too—the vacations, family gatherings, birthday parties and the love that you selflessly gave…”
- They say: “I should have stopped her.”
- You say: “Do any of us have that much control over the actions of another person?”
- They say: “I can’t forgive myself. I missed all the clues.”
- You say: “One day you will forgive yourself. Right now you are not there and that self-blame is part of the grieving process following a suicide death.”
What I learned in interviews for my book, Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk is that while talking about suicide doesn’t give adolescents and young adults the idea, being exposed to suicide can increase risk. It triggers vulnerable young people into thinking it could be a solution and inspire jealousy that the person who died by suicide got to leave all their problems behind. So listen for signs of despair and make sure you ask the question, “Are you thinking of suicide?” and connect them to services for an suicide risk assessment.
- They say: “I don’t want to live.”
- You say: “I feel an especially deep sense of despair from you that is alarming me and I worry for your safety. I know those in early grief often struggle with thoughts of suicide. Are you thinking of suicide?”
- They say: “Yes. I guess I could be.”
- You say: “Tell me more about how you feel.”
- They say: They say how they are feeling. Listen long enough so they feel heard and then interject gently and say….
- You say: “This is serious. I want to make sure you are safe from suicide. That is my primary concern right now and your only job today is keeping yourself alive and I want to help. Let’s call [insert local crisis line resource] together right now on speaker phone so we can connect you with someone who can keep you safe from suicide. Is that OK?”
- Worried about your child? Download this guide on building resilience for any age child. (I started this on my older son when he was 17 and I can see the difference and could see it almost immediately.)