Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
Navigating the New World
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “Ever since my husband died from suicide a few months ago, it seems like I can’t do anything right in my children’s eyes. How can I understand this? What can I do?”
When your husband died, it changed the world for your children and for you. Everyone is making their way through unfamiliar territory they never wanted to be in. Navigating this new world without a map or GPS is confusing, unsettling, and energy-consuming. The pain that pops out at predictable moments (such as bedtime, when Dad isn’t there to kiss the children good night) and unpredictable moments (such as when your teen happens to overhear a friend talking about her Dad teaching her how to drive) can feel like it’s knocking the person feeling it right off her feet. No wonder everybody is on edge!
When children feel like their world has turned upside down, it’s too big a feeling to understand or express directly. So they get upset at little things. The dress that isn’t right is standing for the incomprehensible wrongness of Daddy’s death. And, since children tend to feel that it’s your job as the Mom to make everything right, that anger gets directed at you.
Even teens, who in their most rational moments know that Mom can’t undo this death or kiss away their hurt, can still react like much younger children at times – such as when they feel stressed and sad. Teens also can ask a lot of big questions about why this all happened, getting angry when, of course, you don’t have all the answers. They want the world to make sense and when it doesn’t, they often take out their upset on those around them, particularly the surviving parent.
Another issue is that each family member grieves in his or her own way at his or her own rhythm. So one person is ready to talk when another wants to shut it out of his mind and just focus on the homework he needs to get done. One person needs to cry at the same time as another is savoring a rare moment of joy because she saw a beautiful flower. Each can then feel irritated that the other is out of sync with the way he or she is dealing with the pain right now.
One pitfall for families is that children often feel that they are “losing” the surviving parent just when they need her the most. The surviving parent understandably is preoccupied, exhausted, on an emotional roller coaster, and possibly in shock. So the parent isn’t the steady, available Mom they are used to having around and relying on. Not surprisingly, the children feel irritable and critical. Which puts Mom on edge even more.
What to do? The first thing is to recognize that this is all normal under the excruciating circumstances of losing a loved family member to suicide. Next is to recognize that everybody is hurting and you’re all in it together. You can say that out loud. “I know the world doesn’t seem right since Dad died. We all hurt so much and we all feel so confused and upset.” Be clear that no one is to blame for Dad’s death. His brain was sick. If they want to direct their anger somewhere, they can be angry at the sickness that led Dad to make his body stop working.
Keep your focus on the big picture; you all are using a lot of energy learning to find your way around this strange new world that doesn’t have Dad but does have a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger. You can’t bring Dad back, and you can’t make all the pain go away, but you can love them and do the best you can to be their Mom.
Don’t get caught up in trying to make all the little things the children are complaining about just right. It’s fine to fix what’s easily fixed, but don’t get hung up on trying to make everything right. If you solve one little thing, there will always be another little thing for your children to be bothered by because the real point is that Dad’s death makes the world feel strange and different and wrong. Then try to remember that most of the time it really isn’t about you and what you have or haven’t done; it’s about the grief and upset they are feeling about the death.
You can say that everyone in the family needs to treat everyone else with respect. “We hear each other better when don’t put each other down or make each other feel bad.” Give examples of what that means, such as the child who wants to study saying, “Let’s talk another time. I just need to do my homework now.” You can model respect yourself and also model apologizing when you know you’ve slipped up. And when a child talks disrespectfully, you can say in a calm, friendly voice, “Try that again, remembering that in this family we all treat each other with respect.” Or, “Let’s start over. Come in again and talk to me in a pleasant voice so I can really listen to you. Your own pleasant tone of voice as you make this request leads by example.
Sleeping, exercising, and eating right help everyone. We all control our emotional reactions better when we’ve taken care of our bodies. Try to carve out some one-on-one time with each child that can be counted on. Knowing they will have 15-20 minutes each day to connect with their surviving parent goes a long way to keep children (including teens) from feeling alone, alienated, and irritable. And having other outlets beyond the family, both people to talk to and activities that we enjoy, helps adults and children be more able to manage at home.
Remembering that healing is a long process, with lots of bumps along the way, helps, too.
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.