• Yvette E. McDonald, LCSW-QS

Suicide Awareness: Suicide Survivor Children

Updated: Feb 23


Suicide is a Leading Cause of Death in the United States

According to the National Institute of Mental Health

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports, in 2018:

  • Suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 48,000 people.

  • Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54.

  • There were more than two and a half times as many suicides (48,344) in the United States as there were homicides (18,830).



Surviving suicide as a child.


It happened, you're sitting in the funeral service and the speaker comments on the fact of how the person passed. Not a problem typically unless you're a suicide survivor and more importantly if your child is with you and no one has explained or discussed with them this concept of suicide let alone that someone they loved or knew has passed in that fashion. The questions will immediately flood their system as they begin to wrap the mind around what is suicide.


The crazy thing is that death in and of itself is a hard concept to discuss and explain to a child then add the complexity of suicide and it's a recipe for awkward, complex, and uncomfortable conversations. Because of this lots of parents or loved ones will avoid the topic and conversation all together with their children thinking they are protecting and caring for them. But, in reality it does more harm than good as children will then create their own reality of the situation no matter how distorted it may be.


What you can do:


First, you must identify your own feelings with regards to everything, as naturally and understandably you will be concerned about how the recent suicide of a loved one will effect your children. You will question whether you should tell your children the truth about the death. And then once you make the decision to discuss it with them you wrestle with the words to put together in order to explain it all to them, especially when you yourself are trying to wrap your mind and heart around the death.


Secondly, you must know that the developmental process (i.e. young children under age 6 have a difficult time understanding what death means) will effect your child's comprehension of death and dying and that children can only grieve at their own level of maturity. And like yourself each child is going to walk through the dance of grieving differently.


Typical questions children have:

  1. What is suicide?

  2. Did I do something to make this happen? Is this my fault?

  3. Will I die by suicide too?

  4. Are you going to die too? Will I be left alone?

  5. If I die by suicide too, will I see the loved one again?

  6. What do I tell the kids at school? Will they think bad things about my family?

  7. Why am I so sad? Will I be this sad forever?

  8. When will I stop hurting? What can I do to start feeling better?

  9. How can I remember the loved one better? How can I make sure I never forget?


Thirdly, create realistic expectations of yourself and your child. This season will require patience as your child will have a lot of questions. Keep your responses simple and honest. Guide the conversation based off their responses. Expect repetiotn as children may ask the same question over and over as they try to make sense of everything. Jack Jordan states it this way, "Children do mourn, but they will typically show their grief differently than adults."


Fourthly, understanding suicide. Jordan wraps up the discussion of Epidemiology up nicely when he states "If these facts and figures are staggering to you and they should be you are not alone in your surprise. Suicide remains a tremendously stigmatized, under-reported, and poorly understood cause of death - yet these numbers make clear that it is a major public health problem in America.


For more information about the epidemiology of suicide in the United States:


How to have the actual conversation with your child:

  1. Try to use the simplest language that you can, while also stating the truth.

  2. If you are religious, you can also offer an explanation that is compatible with your beliefs.

  3. Once explained, silently listen to their questions.

  4. Practice active listening, summarize and reflect back what you are hearing both words and feelings.

  5. Observe changes in your child's behavior.


A word about guilt and magical thinking. Guilt is a tangled emotion that can keep us from healing, growing, having clarity and gaining perspective. When your child is plagued by the guilt monster help them by explaining to them the concept of magical thinking. Magical thinking is a term we counselors use that refer to the belief that, somehow, "magically" our thoughts or feelings can cause things to happen. Children experience this both with death and divorce as they pull an isolated event from their memory and then contribute that to what has happened or is happening. It also presents with the "if only" thoughts. Magical thinking can be a slippery slope and it's something that both children and adults do alike. So, what can you do? Talk with them. Get some clarity with regards to if they are feeling guilty about the death. Reassure them that it's not their fault no matter what and that everyone makes their own choices and are responsible for their own choices. While feeling guilty and wanting to make sense of what happened is normal your actions did not cause the suicide. Feel free to share your journey with guilt and how you are coping at this time as well. Lastly, continue to "check-in" with your child regularly to see how they are processing their guilt and any other feelings they may be struggling with in order to help them process and reorganize.



The emergence of the "Why?" Question:

The "Why?" question has to be one of the more difficult questions that people grapple with and have the potential of having one stuck in the cycle of grief. These questions may include:

  1. Why did this happen?

  2. Who is at fault?

  3. Why would someone do this?

  4. Could I have caused it or prevented it?

  5. Why did I respond the way that I did?


Helping your child walk through the why questions will not only help with the present situation but also through other tough times in their lives. Ways to help them through this is by: remaining natural, patient, encourage an honest exchange of thoughts and feelings while permitting your child to feel the pain of the grief, listen, and avoid telling them what to feel or what they shouldn't feel. It's a concept of holding space a term I like to call sitting on the sidewalk.


"The good news, the researchers say, is that though children in this group are at increased risk, most do not die by suicide, and non-genetic risk factors can be modified. And there may be a critical window for intervention in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide during which pediatricians could carefully monitor and refer children for psychiatric evaluation and, if needed, care.

“Children are surprisingly resilient,” Wilcox says. “A loving, supporting environment and careful attention to any emerging psychiatric symptoms can offset even such major stressor as a parent’s suicide.”


For more information about suicide and about Psychiatric disorders:

  • The National Insutitue of Mental Health - www.nimh.nih.gov

  • The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention - www.afsp.org

  • The American Association of Suicidology - www.suicidology.org

  • The American Psychiatric Association - www.psych.org

  • The American Psychological Association - www.apa.org

  • The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention - http://actionallianceforsuicideprevention.org/


Sources:

  1. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/children_who_lose_a_parent_to_suicide_more_likely_to_die_the_same_way

  2. https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/guides-and-publications/when-a-parent-dies-by-suicide



Yvette E. McDonald therapist, writer, professor, and homeschooling mother. Traveling Light Counseling, a practice for individuals, couples and families helping them achieve a new normal within all the chaos that threatens their sanity. If you're in the Saint Lucie or Martin County Area and life isn't quite what you expected it to be at this point in your journey and you are ready to make some changes or perhaps level up some areas in your life, please give me a call at 772-361-8448 to schedule an appointment.