Following the tragic death of one of our teenagers, many parents have requested some guidance on how to manage questions and feelings their child may be experiencing or struggling with. Tracey Wood, the Clinical Social Worker from Rondebosch Boys’ Preparatory School has put the following guidelines together (which have been re-printed with permission).
ADVICE & GUIDANCE
I think most importantly, be honest with your child. If you don’t have all the answers to his/ her questions, say you don’t know the answer or that it may be something we may never know the answer to. Encourage the asking of questions and the expression of feelings, however difficult they may be.
As a parent, you too will experience a range of emotions about the death of Harry. The shocking reality that such a young boy has chosen death as a way of coping with his difficulties is frightening and painful and often difficult to comprehend and process.
Supporting a child when you may be grieving yourself can be an incredibly overwhelming and draining process. To be able to take care of your child during this difficult time, it is important for you as parents, to take care of yourselves.
You might do this by:
- Recognising and acknowledging your own feelings of sadness, fear, anger or other feelings.
- Talking to other trusted adults/friends about your feelings about Harry’s death
- Maintaining contact with other parents
- Getting back to a normal routine. This gives space to slowly resolve feelings. It is important for your child to have time to forget what has happened for some part of each day. The eventual healing takes place when “normal” life goes on and when distress slowly changes to more manageable feelings.
- Do things together as a family that are fun and allow time and space for happy and easy interactions.
HELPING YOUR CHILD
Explain suicide in a way your child can understand.
One of the hardest things for children to understand is why someone would take their own life. A child’s experience of death is usually of a loved one dying due to an accident or illness. While difficult to cope with, there are usually clear answers as to how or why the person died.
When talking about suicide, you can explain that sometimes people feel so sad or upset that their mind is in a sense suffering from an illness. Although they look healthy on the outside, something was going wrong on the inside that we may not know about, that has made them not be able to cope with their sadness in any other way. Reassure your child that whatever feelings he may experience, at different times in his life, it is always helpful to tell someone, to talk about the feelings and to know that there is help for these feelings and that you will ensure they receive any help they may need.
Validate your child’s feelings
There are no right or wrong feelings to have when we have experienced a loss or faced an event that causes us to be confused and uncertain. Whatever feeling your child may have, or tell you about, reassure her/him that they are normal and understandable, considering the situation.
Explain to your child that their feelings may change throughout the day and that it is fine that they are happy, have fun and enjoy time with their friends.
Talk about what they thinks would help with their particular feelings. Some ideas might be
- Writing down your feelings
- Preparing some kind of farewell ritual as a family, such as lighting candles, a prayer, writing to the family
- Learning deep and slow breathing in times of distress and high emotion.
- To talk with trusted adults
- Encourage the continuation of regular daily routines.
Some feelings your child may experience
- Anger – can be a strong response to a young person killing themselves. Anger is a natural reaction. “Why didn’t someone do something?’ “Why didn’t someone notice that he wasn’t okay?” Often there are no answers to these questions. We just need to be able to hold and understand the expression of these feelings.
- Guilt – can be felt very strongly. There may be feelings that “I could have done something”, “If only I had”.
- Disbelief, numbness and shock – it can take some time for the reality of the situation to really settle in.
- Trying to make sense of what has happened and why it has happened.
What can you do?
- Listen carefully to their feelings about the loss and let them know that you’re hearing what they is saying.
- Listen and respond, without judgment or shock. Accept whatever feelings they express
- Be ready to invite questions, even if they are at random times.
- “Check in” with your child periodically.
- Try to make time alone with them or offer space and time for them to be quiet and to think about and through things.
- Have the conversation in several “doses”. Be guided by your child as to how much is enough at a particular point.
- Be prepared to talk about the suicide many times during the next days and weeks. You can open the door to this continuing dialogue by saying, “You may choose to talk with me now or later about what you are feeling, and if you want to ask more questions, I will be available to you. It may be hard to figure out what you need right now, but we will figure this out together.”
Much of what is offered here you may already be doing and thinking about. Your insight into your child, your knowledge of him and your relationship with him is really the most important guide for you as a parent working at supporting your child.
ADVICE TO CAREGIVERS
- Acknowledge the death the same as you would the death of any friend. Don’t pry for information about the circumstances. Don’t shy away if you do not know what to say. Your phone call, card, letter, or presence conveys acceptance and love.
- Acknowledge the bereaved person’s pain. Say, for example, “I know this is painful for you now.”
- Show you care. Weep with them, use the touch of a hand, a hug, an arm around the shoulder to say you care.
- Offer the gift of self. Say, “I’m here because I care about you and I’m concerned for you. I know that you’ve had a death in the family. I don’t know all the circumstances but I want you to know I’m here for you and your family. Are there things I can do for you? Can I sit with you?” When you offer self, and when it is sincere, you seldom will sit in silence; you will have given your friend permission to grieve in your presence.
- Give them permission to be angry. Say, “It’s okay to be angry.” When the survivors can verbalize anger, they can externalize, rather than internalize, the anger and put a name to it. Once it is external, they can better deal with it.
- Don’t try to make them own up or admit to anything. Most people don’t want to say the word “suicide.”
- Avoid asking questions or making statements that will cast blame on survivors. They are already overburdened with guilt.
- Give them permission to talk about their loved one. Don’t be afraid to mention their loved one’s name or to recall pleasant memories you shared with the deceased.
- Listen. Don’t analyze. Don’t change the conversation. Don’t make it heavier or lighter than it is.
- Don’t rationalize suicide. Listen.
- Encourage the survivors to avoid judging yesterday with the knowledge edge of today. They did the best they could with what they knew at the time. Help them assess how much of their guilt is valid.
- Stay in touch. Telephone the survivors, remembering them on the painful anniversaries and holidays. Meaningful letters can be read over and over at difficult times.
- Watch for warning signs of unhealthy, morbid grief. If after six weeks to three months, you see the following symptoms, there is reason to believe the survivor is experiencing complicated grief. The person will: A. be withdrawn, less emotionally accessible to friends and family. B. be irritable, expressing other depressive symptoms. C. have steadily deteriorating work, job, or school performance rather than returning to a fairly normal level. D. be obsessed with details of the death. E. continue to talk about the suicide victim as though he or she were still alive.
- Express your concern. Do it in a manner that conveys genuine caring. Don’t begin by saying,
- “You need counseling.” In a private, well-timed moment free of distractions, begin by saying, “I am concerned about you. I’ve watched you during the past several months. I want to share my concern with you.”
- Share your observations. Give concrete examples: “You’ve withdrawn from your friends. You tell me all you think about is death. You’ve even said you’re not doing as well with the kids as you used to do. It’s hard for you to go to work.” Conclude by saying, “It’s important you listen to yourself and recognize these symptoms are warnings that you are having trouble with grieving.”
- Suggest that it is more than you or they can handle. Say, “It would be helpful for you to speak
- to someone who knows how to help someone grieve.”
- Help them find a counselor or support group. Offer options, such as the clergy, a hospital
- chaplain, a mental health therapist, a private practitioner, or a self-help or support group.*