Child Survivors of Suicide Loss: What a Caretaker Should Know
Surviving a suicide is not an easy task. It can be especially hard for children and adolescents. This post has been largely influenced by Helen Fitzgerald’s book The Grieving Child: A Parent’s Guide. It is intended to give basic information to the caretakers of children who have experienced suicide loss.
How the Child May React
- Denial/Blocking – She may construct a reality that is more acceptable to her. Children can only take grief in small doses, so a break from the grief can be healthy. When the child maintains this unreality for an extended period however, it may be time to seek professional help.
- Anger – Strong, confusing, and unfamiliar feelings (like pain, anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, etc) might come out as anger or aggression because children have not acquired the vocabulary to express themselves. Acting out physically is sometimes all they know how to do.
- Guilt/Regret – A child may think that he could have prevented the death by loving the person more. In some cases, the child may feel that he caused the death directly by saying or thinking mean things to or about the person.
- Depression – Sadness is natural reaction to any significant loss. When these symptoms last longer than 3-4 weeks you may want to seek professional help for the child.
- Fears – Death shakes the safe and secure world of a child. She may regress to baby behaviors (thumb sucking, baby talk) as an attempt to go back to a time when she felt that life was more predictable and stable. She might be scared of whatever caused the death (cars, guns, rope), or she might be scared to let other loved ones out of her sight for fear of them leaving or dying.
- Somatic responses – A child might complain of stomachaches or other body pains. This can be due to the unfamiliar feelings that he is experiencing (fear, anxiety, depression, etc).
How can I care for this child?
- Be honest – Children are perceptive. Even a very young child can sense a change in caretaker, or can sense that things are different in the home. Be honest with him. Let him know what death is, that it is not “going to sleep” for a long time, but that a dead person cannot do the same things a living person can do (eat, breathe, run, play, etc).
- Be patient – Children, especially young children, might not have the capacity to understand that death is final. She may ask when the deceased is coming back, if they will be here by Easter or next Christmas, or if she can go visit the person. Understand that she is not trying to frustrate you with these questions, but that she really does not have the cognitive ability to know what “forever” means.
- Be caring – Especially if the child lost a significant caretaker, he may think that other people will leave him and he won’t be taken care of. Show him that you care about him, that you do not plan to leave him, and that he can come to you if he needs to.
- Be open – This may be the first time a child encounters death, and he might have a lot of questions. Invite him to ask questions and to talk to you. Let him know what is going on, what changes are happening in the house, why people may be stopping by to bring food, etc. Also, share with him what you are doing to positively cope with the loss so he can develop coping skills when faced with grief or hardship.
- Be aware – As a caretaker, you must be aware of your own reactions to this specific death and death in general. How do you cope with grief? Are your methods effective for you? Do you have coping skills that can be passed onto the child? Are you emotionally healthy enough to be available to this child?
Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. It is important to recognize that what is helpful for one person might not be helpful for another. Any loss, especially the suicide loss of a close family member, caretaker, or friend, can dramatically change a child’s life. Help is available for anyone suffering in the aftermath of a suicide. If you or someone you know needs help now or any time in the future, call the FirstLink HotLine at 2-1-1, or 701-235-SEEK (7335). FirstLink provides Listening and Support services for anyone experiencing a difficult time, and Information and Referrals to community organizations with services and programs for people in need. In addition, FirstLink facilitates a monthly Suicide Survivors Support Group for adults who have lost a loved one to suicide, as well as periodic events for youth and families who have experienced suicide loss. For more information about any of these services, call FirstLink.
The Dougy Center, www.dougy.org
After by Francis Chalifour
After a Parent’s Suicide: Helping Children Heal by Margo Requarth
After a Suicide: Young People Speak Up by Susan Kuklin
But I Didn’t Say Goodbye: For Parents and Professionals Helping Child Suicide Survivors by Barbara Rubel
Child Survivors of Suicide: A Guidebook for Those Who Care for Them by Rebecca Parkin and Karen Dunne-Maxim
Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families Through Suicide Grief by Michelle Linn-Gust
Someone I Love Died By Suicide: A Story for Child Survivors and Those Who Care for Them by Doreen Cammarata