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Featured this Month:

Telling Children the Truth about Suicide
Friday, February 16, 2018 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
The notion of telling children about the suicide of their parent or sibling usually evokes a sense of dread. We want to protect our children. We know that the death alone is a devastating loss and the stigma associated with suicide seems like way too much to impose on a child, or even a teen. We want to shield them from the potential for self-blame and the painful, searching questions that distinguish the relationship piece of suicide grief: “What did I miss? What could I have done to stop it? Why didn’t my parent love me enough to stay alive?” It is normal to question the value of truth-telling when the emotional implications seem so devastating.

However, experts on children’s grief, and many survivors of suicide recommend that as soon as children are familiar with the concept of death they should be told the truth, no matter how painful this information feels for the surviving parent. Their position is that children benefit from the full truth because integration of the loss and compassionate resolution is addressed in steps over developmental phases, well into adulthood. This requires time and emotional safety. Through conversations over time, children need to understand the nature of suicide, their blamelessness, the fact that they could not have prevented the suicide and the normalization of angry feelings. The full truth includes the context of why the suicide occurred, without omissions. If the child is as young as three, the truth can be explained in phased steps with ageappropriate language that responds to the child’s questions. First, they must know that the suicide was a result of a sickness in the brain resulting in action that ended the life of his or her parent or sibling. Second, it is possible to give basic information about the method of suicide: “He used a gun; He used a rope; She jumped off a bridge.” Many young people want to know how their loved one took his or her life, and others don’t. Some say that they don’t want the “pictures in my mind.” My position is that the information can be given if and when the question is asked. Yes, all of this is a lot to start with. You are starting a conversation that takes shape over time, keeping in mind your child’s personality and tolerance. More questions will evolve from the initial conversation and each child will need the space and time for their questions to be heard and responded to.

Most parents who call LOSS have told their children, or want help doing it. Very few children who attend counseling have not been told, and when this is the case, most of those children will have figured it out, but they don’t want parents to know this. Consequently, the child also becomes a secret holder. An ethical grief counselor will not override the wishes of a parent, but attempting grief work with a child who does not have the truth has revealed serious problems for the child’s grief processing and relationship with the surviving parent. Disconnection is a primary risk of not telling. Within a primary relationship, holding a secret that relates directly to the child is a barrier to grief openness, and it is though coming together that we heal. Coming together involves the attunement of the surviving parent to the child, the ability to validate all of the child’s feelings and questions. In the absence of this sheltering openness young people can experience a sense of unreality and betrayal. And not telling the children puts informed relatives and community in a compromised position for the long term, as the likelihood of the truth filtering down to your children is significant. In holding this secret, you must be vigilant in your own grief expression, even in your conversations with others, because your children could be listening. And if your older children do know, but the younger ones do not, the burden of secret holding can add to their distress.

We also know that if and when a child uncovers the truth, even years later, they can react with anger at not having been told, followed by a new sense of loss and grief, and for which counseling and support may have a new urgency. Very messy, potentially. This history of LOSS for Children and Youth has shown that children as young as three can integrate a suicide loss over time while developing a compassionate understanding of the parent who died. Not everything comes at once. Every piece of the grief work is commensurate with the child’s developmental capacity, and information is given with that in mind. The very young child knows only that Daddy’s brain was not working right and he made his body stop working. He has died, and we won’t be able to see him anymore. We love Daddy, and we will talk about him and look at pictures. The child starts with this foundation until they are ready later, gradually, to process how depression and anxiety can change the way the brain works, and does not mean Daddy didn’t love them. We all come to learn that there will be some unanswerable questions when it comes to suicide.

Parent or sibling loss will inform the life of your family going forward for years, and many LOSS families ...holding a secret that relates directly to the child is a barrier to grief openness, and it is though coming together that we heal. have grown closer by sharing tears and celebrating precious memories of the loved one they have lost. Children are able to carry balanced memories; that is, memories that are happy or funny and affectionate, mixed with complex memories of their loved one’s struggles. Healthy grief is holistic. The child grieves a whole person, not a version of the deceased that discounts unpleasant or painful aspects of their relationship. We support our children in the expression of their own childlike thoughts and questions. With safety and time, they may look for help with questions that have made them uncomfortable.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth can support families with children as they begin the grief journey with individual and family sessions as well as parent consultation. With proper support children and teens can be helped to develop healthy coping and develope a sense of self as a result of the surprisingly sensitive work with which they are able to process grief after suicide loss. There are untold benefits to the intimacy and trust that surviving parents, children and teens can experience through the honest sharing of this unique grief.


Archives:

Telling Children the Truth about Suicide
Friday, February 16, 2018 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
The notion of telling children about the suicide of their parent or sibling usually evokes a sense of dread. We want to protect our children. We know that the death alone is a devastating loss and the stigma associated with suicide seems like way too much to impose on a child, or even a teen. We want to shield them from the potential for self-blame and the painful, searching questions that distinguish the relationship piece of suicide grief: “What did I miss? What could I have done to stop it? Why didn’t my parent love me enough to stay alive?” It is normal to question the value of truth-telling when the emotional implications seem so devastating.

However, experts on children’s grief, and many survivors of suicide recommend that as soon as children are familiar with the concept of death they should be told the truth, no matter how painful this information feels for the surviving parent. Their position is that children benefit from the full truth because integration of the loss and compassionate resolution is addressed in steps over developmental phases, well into adulthood. This requires time and emotional safety. Through conversations over time, children need to understand the nature of suicide, their blamelessness, the fact that they could not have prevented the suicide and the normalization of angry feelings. The full truth includes the context of why the suicide occurred, without omissions. If the child is as young as three, the truth can be explained in phased steps with ageappropriate language that responds to the child’s questions. First, they must know that the suicide was a result of a sickness in the brain resulting in action that ended the life of his or her parent or sibling. Second, it is possible to give basic information about the method of suicide: “He used a gun; He used a rope; She jumped off a bridge.” Many young people want to know how their loved one took his or her life, and others don’t. Some say that they don’t want the “pictures in my mind.” My position is that the information can be given if and when the question is asked. Yes, all of this is a lot to start with. You are starting a conversation that takes shape over time, keeping in mind your child’s personality and tolerance. More questions will evolve from the initial conversation and each child will need the space and time for their questions to be heard and responded to.

Most parents who call LOSS have told their children, or want help doing it. Very few children who attend counseling have not been told, and when this is the case, most of those children will have figured it out, but they don’t want parents to know this. Consequently, the child also becomes a secret holder. An ethical grief counselor will not override the wishes of a parent, but attempting grief work with a child who does not have the truth has revealed serious problems for the child’s grief processing and relationship with the surviving parent. Disconnection is a primary risk of not telling. Within a primary relationship, holding a secret that relates directly to the child is a barrier to grief openness, and it is though coming together that we heal. Coming together involves the attunement of the surviving parent to the child, the ability to validate all of the child’s feelings and questions. In the absence of this sheltering openness young people can experience a sense of unreality and betrayal. And not telling the children puts informed relatives and community in a compromised position for the long term, as the likelihood of the truth filtering down to your children is significant. In holding this secret, you must be vigilant in your own grief expression, even in your conversations with others, because your children could be listening. And if your older children do know, but the younger ones do not, the burden of secret holding can add to their distress.

We also know that if and when a child uncovers the truth, even years later, they can react with anger at not having been told, followed by a new sense of loss and grief, and for which counseling and support may have a new urgency. Very messy, potentially. This history of LOSS for Children and Youth has shown that children as young as three can integrate a suicide loss over time while developing a compassionate understanding of the parent who died. Not everything comes at once. Every piece of the grief work is commensurate with the child’s developmental capacity, and information is given with that in mind. The very young child knows only that Daddy’s brain was not working right and he made his body stop working. He has died, and we won’t be able to see him anymore. We love Daddy, and we will talk about him and look at pictures. The child starts with this foundation until they are ready later, gradually, to process how depression and anxiety can change the way the brain works, and does not mean Daddy didn’t love them. We all come to learn that there will be some unanswerable questions when it comes to suicide.

Parent or sibling loss will inform the life of your family going forward for years, and many LOSS families ...holding a secret that relates directly to the child is a barrier to grief openness, and it is though coming together that we heal. have grown closer by sharing tears and celebrating precious memories of the loved one they have lost. Children are able to carry balanced memories; that is, memories that are happy or funny and affectionate, mixed with complex memories of their loved one’s struggles. Healthy grief is holistic. The child grieves a whole person, not a version of the deceased that discounts unpleasant or painful aspects of their relationship. We support our children in the expression of their own childlike thoughts and questions. With safety and time, they may look for help with questions that have made them uncomfortable.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth can support families with children as they begin the grief journey with individual and family sessions as well as parent consultation. With proper support children and teens can be helped to develop healthy coping and develope a sense of self as a result of the surprisingly sensitive work with which they are able to process grief after suicide loss. There are untold benefits to the intimacy and trust that surviving parents, children and teens can experience through the honest sharing of this unique grief.