The Family

 

 

In my conversations with adult survivors of a father’s suicide, one theme is clear. When a mother retreats into her grief, the child’s recovery is affected because, in essence, that child loses both parents. Survivors I’ve spoken to sometimes recall their mother’s protracted psychological absence, and remember having to somehow manage their own recovery without the support of a loving and wise parent. Having walked the walk, I urge you not to allow yourself to be this parent. Helping your children survive the nightmare of their dad’s suicide is your number one job for a very long time. Do not retreat to your bed. The tonic immobility I've described may make it hard for you to function in the very early days, but you must make yourself be a parent, even if that’s the only functioning you can manage.

My kids were young adults when their dad died so I understand the fight to be present for them, but am not an expert in managing the needs of younger children. What I do know is that for children under the age of eighteen, healthy grieving and recovery is critical because statistically, as suicide survivors, they are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves as adults, and much more likely to have a suicide attempt than the rest of the population. After all, Dad did it.

Psychiatrist Dr. Harold Kopelwicz notes in an article for The Daily Beast that after a suicide, kids require simple and honest answers to their questions. They need to know that their feelings are acceptable: anger at the parent is normal, and it doesn’t mean a betrayal of their love, or the terrible loss they may be feeling. If the parent who died has been mentally ill for a long time, a child might actually feel relieved at the death, and that, too, is normal and acceptable.

After a suicide, children need to know that they’re not to blame. Being natural narcissists, kids tend to put themselves at the center of the narrative: If I had behaved better, if I had come home right after school, if I had tried harder, he wouldn’t have done this. What we want them to understand is that the parent was ill, and we, together, did our best to help. This isn’t an understanding that can be achieved in one conversation; it is something that has to be worked on over time.

The key to healthy survival for our children is to build resilience in them as they move through the grieving process, and a critical aspect of this is to get them into counseling and/or a children’s grief support group. You may also want to do family counseling together, as I did with my children. It’s a way to retell the communal story repeatedly until the suicide loses its power to crush us, to support each family member when guilt raises its head, and to reconfigure family roles after the abrupt departure of a father. It feels safe and supportive because you have the help of a professional.

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines resilience for us and offers a roadmap to help our kids through this, or any, tragedy. As I used to tell parents newly diagnosed with devastating cancers: “In this awful situation, you have a chance to teach your kids to be survivors in life. It is the most important lesson they will ever learn.”

Here are the seven “C”s of resilience, as discussed on the academy’s website, and based on my own experience supporting children facing a parent's terminal illness.

Coping

Learning to cope effectively with stress will help your child be better prepared to overcome life’s challenges. Positive coping lessons include:

  • Modeling positive coping strategies yourself.
  • Guiding your child to develop positive and effective coping strategies by helping them to identify and manage their feelings.
  • Coaching them to develop a repetoire of healthy activities that help them self-soothe, like listening to music or talking to friends.
  • Realizing that telling kids to stop the negative behavior will not be effective.
  • Understanding that many risky behaviors are attempts to alleviate the stress and pain in kids’ daily lives.
  • Not condemning negative behaviors and, potentially, increasing a child's sense of shame.

Competence

Competence describes the feeling of knowing that you can handle a situation effectively. We can help the development of competence by:

  • Helping children focus on individual strengths.
  • Identifying mistakes in situations gone wrong, rather than blaming the child.
  • Empowering children to make decisions when that is age appropriate, but not giving away decision making because we are exhausted or upset.

Confidence

A child’s belief in his or hers own abilities is derived from confidence. Build confidence by:

  • Focusing on the best in each child.
  • Not pushing the child to take on more than he or she can realistically handle, and that may vary based on their burden of grief or anxiety in the moment.

Connection

Developing close ties to family and community creates a solid sense of security that helps lead to strong values and prevents alternative destructive paths to love and attention. You can help your child connect with others by:

  • Building a sense of physical safety and emotional security within your home. One thing that will help with this is to be aware when you are emotionally distraught on the phone in their presence. Try to have these conversations in private. 
  • Allowing the expression of all their emotions, so that kids will feel comfortable reaching out during difficult times.
  • Addressing conflict openly in the family to resolve problems.
  • Creating family time.

Character

Children need to develop a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong, and to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others. To strengthen your child’s character, start by:

  • Demonstrating how behaviors affect others.
  • Demonstrating the importance of community.
  • Encouraging the development of spirituality.

Contribution

Children need to realize that the world is a better place because they are in it. Understanding the importance of personal contribution can serve as a source of purpose and motivation. Teach your children how to contribute by:

  • Stressing the importance of serving others by modeling generosity.
  • Creating opportunities for each child to contribute in some specific way.

Control

Children who realize that they can control the outcomes of their decisions are more likely to realize that they have the ability to bounce back. Your child’s understanding that he or she can make a difference further promotes competence and confidence. You can try to empower your child by:

  • Helping your child to understand that most of life’s events are not purely random and that most things that happen are the result of another individual’s choices and actions. 
  • Learning that discipline is about teaching, not punishing or controlling; using discipline to help your child to understand that his actions produce certain consequences.

Kids need to know that there is an adult in their life who believes in them and loves them unconditionally, and that is you. By modeling healthy survivorship through your family’s grief journey, you will be their leader and guide. Several resources are available to help you. Supporting Children After a Suicide Loss: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers was written by clinical social workers Susan Coale and Sarah Montgomery of the Chesapeake Life Center. After a Parent's Suicide: Helping Children Heal was written by Margo Requarth, a therapist and children’s bereavement counselor.

We did not create the circumstances we now face, but we are bound by our love, and the duty we have to the precious lives we brought into the world, to aid in our childrens’ healing. Novelist Michele Scott, a survivor of her first husband’s suicide, put it this way in the New York Times parenting blog:  “I don’t have the opportunity to change what has happened. What’s been done is done. What I have to do now is find a way to help my children and myself every day — one day at a time.”