Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
Talking to Teens about the Suicide of a Peer
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “There was a suicide at my daughter’s school last week. The young man who died seemed to have everything going for him. How do I talk to my daughter about this death?”
If your daughter is open to talking about the death of her schoolmate, listen carefully to her feelings about the loss and let her know that you’re hearing what she has to say. Ask what she believes happened to her friend and be prepared to listen and respond, without judgment or shock. Accept whatever feelings she expresses – and she may have a whole range of them. That’s to be expected.
Most suicides are the result of some form of depressive illness (including bipolar illness). If your daughter brings up depression, that gives you an opening for discussion. If not, you may want to ask, “Do you think your friend could have been having difficulties with depression?”
Let your daughter know that depression can affect a person’s thought process, making him believe that what’s wrong, troublesome, or frightening will never get any better. Talk about how depressed thinking can lead a person to make a mistake. Do not say that the person who died was wrong, or weak or selfish.
While we are always respectful and kind in how we talk about the person who died, we don’t want to romanticize suicide. One reason we’re all so sad is that her friend didn’t see alternatives such as getting help, that would have helped him get through his period of deep depression – and now he doesn’t have the chance to try different strategies that might have worked for him.
We started by assuming your daughter was willing to talk about the death of her schoolmate, and we know that some teens may be resistant to talking with parents about that kind of loss. If your child is reluctant, it’s still a good idea to check in with her about what’s happened. The conversations may be relatively short and may occur over a period of time, but it’s important to have them. It may help to encourage her to write about her thoughts and feelings.
You’ll also want to find out if there are support services available at school (or in your community) and whether or not your child is accessing help. Some children and adolescents are more willing to talk with peer acceptance and support.
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.