More and more we are hearing about suicide among teens and young adults. We hear about the rising suicide rates in the news, how suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24, and we hear about it in our communities when a loss has occurred or when a youth has had a suicide attempt.
Suicide is often something that feels very mysterious and distant for many people. It feels uncomfortable to think about and we often believe that it won’t happen in our social circle. Losing someone to suicide comes as a shock to most people. This may be especially true when it’s a young person who dies.
The loss of one person to suicide impacts many people. Recent research indicates that among adults, each suicide death leaves 135 people exposed to the loss, with a continuum of impact from minimal to a significant impact on a person’s life.
There is no current research on how many children and adolescents are exposed to, affected by or bereaved by the suicide death of a peer, but given the size of some schools, widespread use of social media and the focus on peer relationships during this time in life, I hypothesize that this number would be higher than 135.
If your child or teen has experienced the loss of a peer to suicide – be it a close friend, a classmate, a member of their sporting team, an acquaintance, a member of their church youth group, someone they were following on social media, etc. – you play an important role in helping your child process this loss and helping them cope in healthy ways.
A Tough, But Honest Conversation
In some situations, your child may be the one who informs you of the death. Listen openly without judging and ask your child directly what you can do to best support them at this moment.
If you are the one telling your child about this loss, be honest with your child while sticking to known facts and without giving graphic details. Graphic details – those that give lots of specifics that allow you to essentially picture the death – don’t help with the grieving and may increase the risk of unhealthy responses to the loss.
Rumors can fly quickly, especially around a highly emotional and tragic event. Check with sources that you trust – the school, the youth minister, etc. – before assuming that what you have heard about a suicide death is accurate.
Avoid spreading any rumors yourself or engaging in speculation and discourage your child from doing the same. These will only hurt the deceased’s family and make the grief process more complicated for everyone.
Parents can expect a wide range of emotional reactions including shock, sadness, anger, confusion, and guilt. For some kids, there may be a minimal emotional reaction.
There is no right or wrong way for your child to feel but some emotions, such as guilt may need to be addressed which we will talk about later on. Parents can help by listening and validating their child’s emotions.
Ask your child what they are thinking and feeling. It may be hard for some of them to have this insight or to put it into words. That’s okay. You are still sending them the message that you care and it’s okay to talk to you about what they are experiencing and that you will listen and support them.
Help Your Child Avoid Common Pitfalls
When a tragedy occurs as human beings our minds naturally start searching for an explanation. Typically we look for the simplest, most obvious reason something so awful would occur.
With suicide loss, this tends to lead to pointing to the one or two things that are visible stressors in a person’s life just prior to their death. Suicide, however, is NEVER caused by just one or two factors.
The potential factors we can see easily are just the tip of the iceberg and there are often things we will never know or understand about what led to suicide. It’s important for your child to know this and to also be aware that 90% of people who die by suicide have a treatable mental health condition at the time of their death.
So often we want to blame the break-up or the bad grade or the argument with their parents as the reason someone ended their life. I hear this very frequently in my work with teens who have lost a friend to suicide.
But these explanations are far too simple and don’t account for the role of mental health.
In the search for an explanation, many children or teens may begin to blame themselves or someone else. I encourage parents I work with to directly ask their child if they are struggling with any feelings of guilt or blame and if they are to help their child refute this.
Remind your child about the complex nature of suicide, how it’s never just one thing, how mental health conditions are present 90% of the time when someone dies by suicide, and how they, along with everyone else was doing the best that they could.
If your child is having difficulty moving away from feelings of guilt or blame, it may be best to consult with a mental health professional.
Because of the susceptibility of peer influence that many young people experience, teens are especially vulnerable to what is known as suicide contagion. Contagion occurs when one person’s suicidal behavior or suicide contributes to suicidal behavior or suicide in other people.
Research has shown that suicide contagion is most likely to occur when people identify in some way with the person who died when they are already experiencing a psychological vulnerability, when they witness the death or the immediate aftereffects and when they are exposed to graphic details about the death.
However, suicide contagion is very rare and accounts for 1-5% of all suicides each year.
Parents need to ask their child or teen directly if they have ever had thoughts of suicide and if they are having any thoughts of ending their life now. Listen calmly without judging and let them know that you are always there for them. Share that suicide is not an option and that there is help available if needed.
This conversation is important not only in assessing possible suicide risk but sets the stage for your child to know that they can always talk to you about suicide and other difficult topics. Seek immediate support from mental health or medical professionals if you feel your child may be at risk for suicide.
There are resources listed at the end of this article.
Small Things That Can Help
Keeping your child on their usual schedule and routine can provide them with a sense of safety and structure during a very difficult time. It is okay to have some flexibility within this to allow for breaks for self-care when needed.
Allow your child to make choices. The sudden loss of someone we care about can leave us feeling very out of control. Help your child feel a sense of personal power in their lives by allowing them to make small choices (i.e. what they will have for dinner, healthy ways they can honor their friend, etc.).
When dealing with strong emotions like grief, shock, sadness, or anger, we need to find healthy ways of expressing what we feel and release some of the emotional energy that builds up inside of us out.
Ask your child what things they can do to take care of themselves during this difficult time. It can be helpful to give them specific examples of healthy ways they can manage their emotions such as relaxation through deep breathing and using the ABC PLEASE skills which help with how we feel and respond to our experiences.
Give your child permission to have fun again. Many teens and children I have worked with have been hesitant to get back into their hobbies and passions or have experienced a sense of guilt at enjoying themselves.
They need to hear from trusted adults that it’s okay to laugh, relax, and enjoy and that this does not take away from their feelings about the person who died. These positive experiences can be essential ways of helping your child cope.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who died. I’ve had clients tell me that soon after their friend died their parents never said their name or referenced them in again and this was hurtful and isolating for them.
While children and teens do need space from constant talk or focus on their loss, completely ignoring that this person was a part of your child’s life doesn’t allow for remembering, which is a part of the process of grieving and healing.
Allow your child to memorialize their friend in healthy and meaningful ways such as writing a letter to the parents of their friend or using a creative outlet like art or music to honor their friend.
Funerals can be an important part of the grief process. Offer your child the option of attending the funeral. If they choose to attend, plan to go with them for support.
Talk to them ahead of time about what to expect at the funeral. Many children and teens may not have been to a funeral before and may be anxious about what might occur.
How Do I Know If My Child Needs More Support?
Many children and teens will grieve the loss of a peer to suicide without significant complications. This will be a tough time in their life but parents will see their child returning to their usual emotions and patterns.
For some kids, this may be more difficult. There are mental health professionals who specialize in treating grief from a suicide loss. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of therapists who have been trained in suicide bereavement.
Talking about this loss in therapy can help facilitate a healthy grieving process.
There are signs that parents should be on the lookout for that indicate the need for support from a mental health professional. If your child indicates a desire to die or end their own life, this warrants immediate consultation with a trained professional.
Additional signs that your child may need more support include changes in behavior that impact their ability to engage in their normal activities, repeated difficulties with sleep or eating, no longer feeling interested in their relationships, activities or hobbies, taking excessive risks, harming themselves, and getting into fights.
If you or someone you care about has thoughts of suicide, support is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or by text at 741-741.