Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
How Do I Get Back on Track with My Children?
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “How do I get back on track with my children? I’ve been so overwhelmed since my husband died from suicide that I feel I am not connecting with them anymore.”
You and your children have experienced a major loss that has changed everyone’s world. You all are dealing with strong, exhausting, and disorienting emotions – each with your own mixture of shock, sadness, confusion, anger, and yearning. Probably there’s some anxiety mixed in, too, and maybe some feelings of guilt or shame. Plus everything is different now with your husband gone. It’s completely understandable that you feel drained and have little physical or emotional energy for anything – including your children. And it’s understandable that they are out of sorts, too, but that can make it even harder to relate to them. What to do?
First, take a deep breath and recognize that it is completely normal to feel depleted. Then take another deep breath and recognize that there are things you can do to help yourself and your children get through this. You start by knowing that you have a very limited amount of energy and you want to use it as wisely as possible.
Re-establish a routine for your family. Children feel comforted when there are predictable rhythms to the day. Regular meal times, bedtimes, and bedtime routines (such as bathing or showering, reading a “good night” story, getting a “good night” hug and kiss), and morning routines for waking up, getting dressed, and eating breakfast, help children feel grounded – especially now when their world has felt so out of control and unpredictable. You’ll feel more grounded, too. And, importantly, the more things are part of a regular routine, the fewer decisions you’ll have to make.
It’s been found that each time we have to make a decision, it takes energy. Parents and children can use up a lot of precious energy over things that don’t really matter, like what to eat for breakfast, then not have the energy for something more important like work or school or having fun together. Better to simply have a routine that breakfast on Wednesday mornings is cold cereal and milk.
As you’re re-establishing the family routines, you can talk about what can stay the same and what will need to be different. Maybe bedtime will stay the same and Friday can still be pizza night, but Daddy won’t be taking them out for ice cream after pizza anymore.
Then you can look at that child’s day and think of a regular, predictable time when you can give that child your full attention. For a young child, it can be time playing or drawing together. Older children may want talk time. Walking the dog together counts if you’re not on your cell phone.
In fact, make your special time with your child a “no phone, no electronics” time for both of you so that you are actually connecting. Bedtime can be a precious time for talking about the good things that happened during the day, about questions and worries, about memories. The most important thing is that your child can count on this time. She knows that, even if you’re sad and distracted, there is some time when the two of you will connect. In fact, if she whines for attention at other times when you can’t give it, you can tell her, “I can’t play with you now, but we’ll have our special time at 7:00.”
This may feel very difficult at first and you may have to “fake it ’til you make it” for a while. That’s OK. You’re getting into the habit of being with your child, and she’s learning that she hasn’t lost you, too. This time with your child usually pays off in the not-too-long run by lowering her anxiety level, helping her feel less alone and abandoned, and making her feel valued. Eventually, you’ll want to have at least 20 minutes with each child, but start with shorter amounts of time if you can’t pull off truly being with her for that long.
While your child sometimes may want to use this time with you to talk about Daddy, other times she may choose to talk about other things. As long as you’re open to either possibility, you’re giving her what she needs. Her Daddy’s death from suicide is a huge event in her life, but it’s not the only event. You want to know that her new tooth or her new ability to do a cartwheel matters to you, too. You care that she’s growing and learning new things.
On days when you have a good energy level, go ahead and find other things you can enjoy doing with your child. Maybe today, you can toss a ball with your son. Maybe tomorrow, you listen to his favorite song together. And maybe the next day, when he asks you to shoot hoops with him, you tell him you’re feeling too tired and sad to come out right now, but you want to hear how many lay-ups he sank and how his free throws are coming along.
And three days after that, when you’ve played a nice game of catch, he may tell you that you’re not as good at baseball as Dad. You can agree, remember with him what fun they had together, and comment that you know how much he misses his father. Maybe he’ll want to talk more about it and maybe he won’t, but he’ll know that you are open to hearing both happy memories and sad or angry feelings from him.
While we’re talking about what you can do to maintain a connection to your children, it’s important to remember that their needs don’t all have to be filled by you.
Now is the time to let other caring adults reach out to your children. Let family members, parents of their friends, neighbors, coaches, camp counselors, teachers, members of your religious congregation, your friends, etc., reach out to your children. A bereaved child is a bereaved child, no matter what the cause of her loved one’s death.
People may be shy about reaching out to you because they don’t know what to say, but you can reach out to them on behalf of your child. Let them know you’d welcome an invitation to take your daughter to the pool or your son to go for pizza.
Many children and teens benefit from taking part in bereavement groups for youngsters of their age. Check with your local hospice, Rainbows.org, or Dougy.com to see what’s available near you. It doesn’t have to be a group specifically for youngsters who’ve lost someone to suicide to be of help. Normalizing their grief by seeing it as similar to that of other kids who have had tragic losses can actually be healing.
Your own healing and your own sense of connection to other adults are also central. By taking care of yourself, you are making an important step in helping you be the parent you want to be. You need and deserve to have time with adults who care about you, whether they are friends, family, support groups (in person or online), counselors, or people from your church, synagogue, or mosque. You’re helping your children when you find resources apart from them to release and work through your strong, complicated feelings. Doing yoga, meditation, listening to music, getting outside, or whatever helps you feel calmer and more relaxed is a good use of your time. Get rest and sleep, but know that staying in bed all day will make you feel worse. Pace yourself and set your priorities. During this time of reduced energy, you probably will have to let some things slide. Maybe the house won’t be as clean. Maybe the meals will be boring. Maybe the weeds will grow. That’s OK. The most important thing is taking care of yourself and being there for your children.
Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti co-authored the book 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children. Anne is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and their parents in Northfield, IL. Vicki is Manager of Children’s Bereavement Services at Rainbow Hospice in Mt. Prospect, IL. They created this Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death Series for the Alliance of Hope.