5 Best Practices for Helping Kids Bereaved by Suicide
Death is confusing at any age. But for youth, who may be experiencing death and grief for the first time, it’s even more complicated. When the death is the result of suicide, it adds still more questions.
Most experts agree that we should be honest and tell kids about the cause of death directly. “The old-school thinking was don’t talk about it because it will encourage other kids to kill themselves. There’s actually no evidence of that in reality,” says Donna Schuurman, senior director of advocacy and training at Portland’s Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families. “The old-school thinking also was it’s not the time to talk about prevention, and I say, ‘Yeah it is.’ It’s the time to talk about depression and hopelessness and support systems.”
What is still being debated is the best way for communities—such as schools—to mourn a death by suicide without risking contagion or romanticizing what happened. (I’ve written a bit about this before; read about some of these postvention concerns here.) We need to honor the deceased and keep our messaging safe and productive. With the right leadership, I believe we can accomplish both.
We can honor those who die by suicide in safe, appropriate, and healing ways, but it takes effort and forethought. While there is no one way to mourn or honor someone who’s died, there are some best practices. Here are four things communities should consider after someone in their circle dies by suicide.
1. Be Honest
Use the words “died by suicide.” Children are concrete thinkers so phrases like “passed away” or “your loss” can be misleading. Avoid euphemisms (e.g., “at peace” and graphic details, and only answer the questions the children ask so they can process information a bit at a time. Be clear and state the facts. Let them ask questions, but know it’s fine to not have all the answers—and to tell the child that you don’t know.
“It’s about trust,” Schuurman says. “It’s about ensuring that the kids have the ability to trust that you’re going to tell them the truth.”
The most important thing is to communicate openly and honestly; you don’t want the child to find things out from someone else, and you want them to know you’re available to talk and to listen. Kids tend to feel grief in waves, so be prepared to have these conversations at various times and to answer the same questions more than once.
2. Meet Kids Where They Are Developmentally
The level of detail will depend on the kid’s age, developmental level, and relationship to the deceased. Parents should tell kids as soon as they can, in language they’ll understand. If you don’t feel like you have the ability to communicate effectively—you’re mourning yourself, you can’t find the words—it’s OK to bring in a professional or ask one for help figuring out how to approach the conversation. But the parent, or another trusted adult, should be present for the talk.
Breakout the puppets, clay and watercolors. Sometimes kids prefer to communicate through play or art. Give them different ways to express themselves have them tell you about what they create. Learn more on what makes art therapy and play therapy effective. Healing rituals can also help.
3. Stay Consistent
Ask yourself: What does your community usually do when someone dies (regardless of the cause of death)? Start there.
“It’s helpful when schools have a standard practice for how they handle the death of a student or a community member. Have that plan in place prior to any tragedies,” says Brook Griese, co-founder and CEO of Judi’s House, a Denver-area organization that provides research-based care to grieving kids and their families.
A memorial service, a scholarship fund, a yearbook page—all are appropriate responses so long as it’s how you would honor anyone’s death.
“It’s valuing the life of the person. What does a community do, and what example are they setting, when someone in their community dies, regardless of how they die and who they are?” Schuurman asks.
In addition, whatever action you decide on should be available to the whole community. It shouldn’t be limited to the homeroom of the student who died, for instance. You never know who will be severely impacted by a death, so make sure outreach is available to everyone.
4. Talk, Talk, Talk…
We don’t want to shut down communication about the deceased or increase stigma around suicide. Make a safe space for communicating, whether that’s at home or at the counselor’s office at school or in the classroom. If we shut communication down entirely, most people will seek out their own answers or find ways to channel their grief that may be unhealthy. Make sure youth know there are resources available—and that it’s OK to seek them out, to ask questions, and to be sad. The death of a student in a drunk driving accident might result in conversations in the school about the dangers of drinking or driving. The same approach should be considered with suicide.
Share stories about the deceased. Say their name. Create a memory box together. Explore feelings related to the death and to the process of honoring the life that was lived.
Children often think they did something to cause the death. Assure them that this is not the case and give them lots of reassurance that they will continue to be loved and cared for.
Talk about suicide prevention – what they should do if they or someone they know is expressing overwhelming emotional pain.
“You want to talk about these things because the kids are talking about—whether the adults sanction it or not,” Schuurman says. A suicide in the community might also require more of a crisis response because it’s often shocking and unexpected, so make sure there are counselors or other professionals available immediately.
5. …But Watch Your Words
What we say can have a big impact on children, so choose your words wisely. You don’t want to minimize the kids’ feelings, Griese says.
Telling them “time heals all wounds” makes adults sounds like we’re full of BS and that we don’t understand, which can close lines of communication.
“In an effort to make kids not feel responsible or guilty, we’ll say things like, ‘It’s not your fault. There was nothing you could do.’ At the same time, we’re saying there are a lot of things you can do—like tell someone [you’re having suicidal thoughts]. It’s mixed messages,” Schuurman says. She tries to avoid terminology such as, “It was his choice” or “We’ll never know why” or “If only they’d gotten help.”
Children, Teens and Suicide Loss (AFSP & Dougy Center) – gives very specific things to say and do at different ages.
Sesame Street Grief Toolkit – provides videos to watch and activity suggestions.
Guidelines from the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide
After A Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools from AFSP and SPRC
About the Author
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and the nation’s first initiative for suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2016 she was an invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Connect with Sally at www.SallySpencerThomas.com and on Facebook (@DrSallySpeaks), Twitter (@sspencerthomas) and LinkedIn.
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