Loss of any kind is hard. The death of a loved one is one of the toughest events a parent can experience or usher a child through. And navigating loss due to someone taking their own life is heartbreakingly tragic. For the families of that person and for their friends. The shock of such a sudden loss often leaves those left behind with not only grief but confusion and often many questions.
If you are struggling to cope with suicide or raising a child or a teen who is going through this, it can be hard to know what to do and where to turn. Know this. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to cope with suicide loss, but the tips below may help you or your child navigate through this tragedy.
Accept Your Emotions
When someone takes their own life, we often deal with a myriad of emotions. Most of us have heard of the seven stages of grief, but what many don’t realize is that those stages are not always linear. In the grieving process, you may cycle through a range of emotions. From sadness to anger, loneliness, anxiety, then back to sadness.
It’s okay to not only feel all of these things but to go back and forth with your emotions.
As a mental health therapist, one of the most important pieces of advice that I can offer is to not only feel but also accept your emotions.
As mentioned earlier, the grieving process is not linear. The seven stages of grief — shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance/hope are helpful to know… but rarely ever occur in order. In fact, it is completely common to go through these stages multiple times or skip a stage entirely.
In the aftermath of a suicide, we may feel as if we need to rush through emotions. We believe that the quicker we work through our emotions, the easier our healing journey will become. Quite often, this is completely false. By working through your emotions and accepting them at your own pace, you will be preparing yourself to heal in a healthy way.
Take Care Of Yourself First
As a parent, your knee-jerk reaction in a crisis is to place everyone’s oxygen mask securely on their faces before your own. It can be really hard to even want to take care of yourself when tragedy strikes. For many of us in a crisis, it is quite natural to stop making ourselves a priority and drop those routine self-care practices. You may cope with the tragedy of suicide by eating unhealthy foods, not exercising, isolating, or sleeping very little. These are all normal responses to death and loss. However, you try not to stay stuck in that place. The lack of all of these things will inhibit your body, mind, and soul from healing in a healthy way.
Instead, slowly try to incorporate healthy habits back into your daily routine. Begin with trying to eat healthier again and going for a 20-minute walk in nature. Your body will certainly thank you, but it will also give your mind the healthy energy and nutrients it needs to cope with this additional stress.
When Talking to Your Child
Following the death of someone by suicide, parents and other adults in a child’s life often feel unprepared when it comes to the best way to navigate these conversations and provide support. The first step is to refer to the point right before this one: Take care of yourself first. What does that look like? Pause and ensure that your emotions have been acknowledged and accepted. Once you do that, you will be able to approach your child calmly. Staying calm does not mean that you should mask your emotions, your child will sense your sadness regardless. Share your emotions while also validating theirs. Your child may convey sadness, confusion and ask many questions. While details are not always necessary, be honest and use age-appropriate language when responding to specific questions about the death. And remember, every child will have their own unique way of processing grief. Be sure to check in with your kid or teen regularly–without being intrusive– just to let them know that they are not alone.
Keep A Journal
Suicide leaves a permanent mark on those who are left behind. You may struggle with guilt — what if I had done this? what if I had said that? The “what if” questions can be endless. Our mind will take us to the darkest places trying to think of everything we could have done differently to prevent this loss. You may have a never-ending cycle of thoughts like this and emotions that you can’t quite put into actual words. Consider keeping a journal to write down your jumbled thoughts and process your all-over the place emotions.
Remember, your writing doesn’t have to be coherent, and your sentences can be less than elegant. This is your space to write down how you are feeling, whether that is on your phone, tablet, or on physical paper. Writing down your thoughts and emotions can help you release what you are feeling and clear your mind.
Talk To Someone
In the aftermath of a suicide, it can feel like an isolating experience. Your relationship (or your child’s relationship) with this person was unique, so it may feel impossible that anyone could understand how you or they are feeling. No matter what their relationship to the person was, there is likely someone out there who understands what you or your child is going through because they also lost this person. Draw on your supportive relationships. It may feel awkward to reach out to someone, but it may actually help both of you. You can reminisce about this person and focus on their life and the memories you had with them.
Encourage your child to do the same. If you have a school-aged child, school counselors and school social workers are trained to teach your child healthy coping tools or they can simply check-in with them throughout the school week.
If symptoms of sadness and isolation seem to be getting worse or you notice sharp changes in your or your child’s behaviors, consider talking to a licensed therapist who is trained in grief counseling. While they may not have known the person, a therapist will help you celebrate and honor your loved one while working through the complicated emotions you, your child, or loved one may be feeling.
If you are struggling to cope with a suicide loss, you don’t have to do it alone. Please reach out to a loved one or a trained mental health professional. If you are a parent and need additional support with a kid or teen struggling with depression or despair following a significant loss, consider a book resource. In the book Seen: Healing Despair and Anxiety in Kids and Teens Through the Power of Connection, we outline five connection tools that will guide parents and caring adults to help kids and teens feel seen and heard in the midst of despair.