Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “My 7-year-old says she wants to die so she can be with her father who died from suicide. What should I say and do?”
Some children have fantasies about joining their loved one in heaven by dying themselves. This is understandable.
First, it takes a long time for children to grasp the concept that death is irreversible. Children of your daughter’s age (and even older) still waver in their understanding that death is forever. So, your daughter’s fantasies of reunion with her dad may not include the realization that she herself would never be alive again once she died. (Cartoons and video games where characters regularly come back to life seem to give evidence supporting children’s ideas of death as less than final.)
Yearning for the loved one who died is a grief response shared by many children and adults. You can empathize with your child’s longing for the missing person, letting her know that she’s not alone in that feeling. And at the same time, you can let her know that she can keep her Daddy in her heart while living life on earth. Be clear that this is what Daddy would want her to do. Lovingly think together about your daughter’s future on this earth. Reinforce this by showing that you notice and appreciate the positive things she does, whether it is petting the dog, setting the table, learning in school, getting up after falling down, or being kind to someone else.
If belief in God and heaven is a part of your faith, you can emphasize that heaven is eternal and comes at the end of our God-given lives here. Let her know her father will be there forever, and he will wait until she has had a full life. If there is a lot of emphasis on what a wonderful place heaven is, children can get the wrong idea that death is a desirable thing – because they’ll be surrounded by love, no one will ever be upset with them again, and they won’t feel any more sadness, pain, fear or anger. It’s more helpful to emphasize that God’s love is always with her, even while she’s on this earth, giving her strength and courage.
Remember that young children typically are very concrete thinkers. They may take images and metaphors as literally true. Watch out for the possibility of your child interpreting things you or someone else has said in a way that is very different from what was intended. Be ready to ask gentle questions to clarify what she’s thinking when she makes statements that alarm or sadden you, or if she seems frightened. For example, a child may imagine her father literally being held in the arms of a nice man named Jesus, and feel left out. Another child may be frightened of Jesus as a “dead guy hanging on the wall” upon seeing a crucifix in a classroom.
And while you want her to keep her love for her father and to have a positive image of him, it’s also important to be clear that his suicide was a mistake he made when his brain was sick. “His sick brain sent confused thoughts and made him feel terribly sad and angry. And it made him feel like the things that were wrong could never get better. But we know that things can get better.”
You can reassure her that you all feel very, very sad now, but it will get better. (And telling her may help you to believe it is true – which it is.) It may be helpful to your child to let her know that sometimes you feel really mad that Daddy’s brain got sick the way it did and mad that he died. You are directing the anger at the sickness, not at the person. This will help your child understand why you don’t want her to do all the things her father did, to make sense of the mixed emotions she’s probably noticing in you, and to deal with her own mixed feelings.
Sometimes a child wants to join a dead parent or sibling because all of the family’s attention and energy seems to be focused on the person who died. Your grief is necessary, and confusion is to be expected. But you can step back for a moment and see if preoccupation with the person who died has taken over so much that a child might feel that the only way to get attention and love is to be dead, too. If that could be happening, think what you can do to shift things, even a little.
You want to find a way for your child to feel that she matters as a person, too. Is there a group you can pour out your feelings to so that there’s more breathing room at home? Can you find a way to carve out some time with your child when you’re paying attention to her? Are there other people who can spend time with her? Are there activities she can enjoy? She may benefit from a children’s bereavement group. Both of you may find counseling helpful.
We have been writing here about children who see death as a way of reuniting with a loved one. While it sounds particularly scary to a parent who has lost a spouse to suicide, reunion fantasies are found in children who have experienced the death of a loved one from many different causes. These reunion fantasies almost always are telling us of children’s yearning, pain, confusion about death and heaven, and their need to be noticed, rather than actual threats. In any case, what helps the most is to let your child know that you are truly listening to her and trying to find out what she is telling you. Then let her know you are there for her with a hug, with your attention, and your love.
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.