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 _____?” 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. That process of planning is important.
The danger is that this age doesn’t always have the best coping skills for something so monumental. Listening and offering opportunities for connection helps the young people process the loss.