Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
My Middle Schooler Blames Herself
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “My daughter blames herself for her mother’s death from suicide. How can I help her?”
The first thing you can do is listen to your child very carefully. You are showing her that you are open to hearing all her worries and you respect that she is working to understand something that is very painful and hard to understand. Once you have an idea of what she is feeling guilty about, you can begin to help her tell a more accurate story that doesn’t blame.
Explain that the suicide happened because the loved one’s brain got sick. Focus on the illness, rather than the specifics of the event. You can explain that her angry thoughts or words – or whatever else your child is stuck on – didn’t make Mom’s brain get the sickness of depression or bipolar disorder. If alcohol or drugs were part of the picture, older children and teens can be told that made things worse for Mom, making it harder for her to make good decisions.
Let your daughter know that scientists and doctors are still working hard to figure out why it is that some people, like Mom, get so depressed and confused that they think they are making things better by making their bodies stop working. But doctors and scientists do know that it’s not because of anything their children have thought, said, or done.
Children of your daughter’s age can be challenged: How many girls have ever talked back to their mothers? How many of those mothers died by suicide? (Put into this question whatever it is that your child is blaming herself or himself for.) This helps to make it clear that some parent-child conflict happens in most families, but suicide does not. It will become obvious to her that there is no connection. It’s the illness that’s to blame, not the child.
Sometimes it will take a number of conversations before your daughter will feel safe enough to tell you what’s eating away at her. If she’s blaming herself, it may feel very scary to let anyone in on her guilty feelings. (If you have access to a children’s bereavement group, being with other children who also are wrestling with sadness and self-blame could help your daughter feel free to express her feelings.)
You make her feel safe when you listen without judging, when you tell her warmly how much you love her and how proud you are that she is telling you what’s on her mind, and when you take a consistent “no blame” stance about the death. This includes not blaming yourself, or any other person – including the person who died – just as you don’t blame someone for getting cancer.
But what if the person who died was hard to live with? What if your daughter – or you – found her mother’s moodiness, unavailability, or other behaviors to be upsetting? As you talk about Mom, talk about her as a whole person, with strengths and weaknesses. No one is all good and no one is all bad. You can be straightforward that certain ways that Mom acted were upsetting.
Let your daughter know that it’s normal for kids to be bothered or angered by some of the things she’s upset about. We don’t have to like everything Mom did. Some of it was hurtful. Mom was a complicated person with a complicated illness. Anger can be directed toward the illness without denying that this illness hurt those that Mom loved.
We can also remember the good parts about Mom. We get to choose which things to hold onto and cherish. Sometimes this process can be helped by writing good memories on one set of cards and bad memories on another. Your daughter then can put each set into its own box. She can put away the bad memory box as a symbolic letting go. And she can put the good memory box in a different, more accessible place to look through when she feels like it.
You can help your child form an understanding of her mother’s death as the sad outcome of a tragic illness that was nobody’s fault. She can tell a story of someone she loved whose brain was sick, who was sometimes difficult to live with, whom she understandably sometimes disagreed with or had negative feelings about, and whom she misses very much. A story of a death that she didn’t cause and couldn’t prevent. A story in which she can remember the good things about her mother and know that Mom loved her even though her mother’s sick brain led Mom to make hurtful mistakes.
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.