Coping In The Wake of a Kid’s Suicide
Before you do anything else, save the following numbers in your and your kids’ smart phones. You will likely not need them, but it’s better to have them ready just in case:
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
• Crisis Text Line – 741741 – Text “Hello”
Any kid’s death is a shock.
A kid’s death by suicide shakes the entire community to its core and demands an appropriate, community wide healing effort. This can take many forms, but there are a few basic ways that you can immediately start to help your kids.
As you read the following advice, keep in mind that one of the reasons for the shock is that kid’s suicides are rare. It’s easy to get caught up in worries that your kid is in immediate danger. This is unlikely. While a response to the tragedy and increased vigilance for distress are warranted, it is equally vital that your responses not impede healing that will occur naturally.
To best respond to a kid’s suicide:
As you are more mindful of signs of trouble in your kid have and model hope. For quite a while after the death, it can feel as though suicide is an all-powerful, ever-present monster searching for its next victim. Remember for yourself and help your kid to stay connected to those things that keep him alive—friends, family, sports, activities, and school. Remember: as long as you are alive, there is hope.
Resist the overwhelming urge to fix things. Adults tend to talk a lot and ask lots of questions when things go badly. Most kids heal naturally if allowed to and supported in their efforts to cope. It’s best to encourage kids to talk if they need to, then wait for them to come to you. When they come, know how to talk to them about suicide. Most importantly, let them talk and listen carefully.
Say the right things.
When talking about the suicide, provide accurate information without being graphic. Tell kids (when developmentally appropriate) that the person died by suicide, even talk about the method, but refrain from gruesome details. Be ready to hear, accept, and validate overwhelming sadness, fear, and anger. As your kid wonders if she could have done something or if this was all her fault, remind her that she cannot be responsible for anyone else’s behavior. Always try to pivot to hope and to encourage her to ask you or others for help. Let her know about the numbers you already put in her phone.
There will be a tendency to try to figure out why the kid died. Avoid this. Reasons for suicide are usually very complex. Instead of trying to isolate a cause, talk about reasons for staying alive and to be hopeful about the future.
Know when to get help.
Most people, even those who react very strongly in the wake of a suicide, will heal on their own. It might be harder for kids who have pre-existing emotional or behavioral problems. You also want to pay special attention to kids who were especially close to the person who died. Any big changes in behavior might be cause for concern. In all cases, seeing any combination of the following warning signs should concern you:
• Indicating a desire to die or kill oneself
• Searching for or obtaining means to kill oneself
• Expressing hopelessness
• Expressing feelings of being trapped
• Expressing feelings of being a burden
• Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
• Reckless or dangerous behavior
• Changes in drug or alcohol use
• Being anxious, frustrated, irritable, or angry
• Expressing desires for revenge or retribution
• Social withdrawal or expressing feeling isolated
In the wake of a suicide, set a low bar for seeking help. Get it as soon as you find yourself asking if you or your kid needs it. Seek an appropriately-trained psychologist or suicidologist and reach out to organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the American Association of Suicidology.
After a kid’s suicide, things will never be the same. The going may be very tough for a while. Know that people get better, especially when they listen to and support one another. Those who seek help when they need it heal faster and stronger.
Kids will take your lead. As you work to heal, so will they.
And your community will ultimately grow more resilient.
Shane G. Owens, Ph.D., ABPP is an authority on college mental health practice and policy, including college readiness and behavioral risk management. As a college administrator and in private practice, he works primarily with adolescents and emerging adults. He is a board-certified behavioral and cognitive psychologist.