There is nothing that can prepare an adolescent for the death of a classmate, a friend, or a sibling. When you are young, there is a sense of invincibility. Your thoughts are on hanging out with your friends, the long-term goal of college, and what you want to be when you grow up. A sudden, unexpected death of one of your own jolts that long-term thinking and presents the possibility of death. It’s abrupt, painful, and can lead to a bag of mixed emotions.
Parents also feel an array of emotions. We are confused and sorrowful. We question the safety and well-being of our own teen. We empathize with the family and their loss. We witness the pain our own children are going through. And sometimes we feel helpless.
It is important to know that every teen is going to feel this loss in their own personal way. For some, the young man was a very close friend. For others, he was a smiling face in their classroom. Some teens were friends of his sister or family. Others might not have had the privilege of knowing him but were aware of his death. All of these young people will experience the grief of his loss in their own way.
The teen years are a time of independence which makes supporting your teen through this very tricky. Many of your teens will attempt to deal with their grief completely on their own because, in their minds, they should be old enough to work through it on independently. We as adults can’t push our support on them, demanding that they talk to us, or push them to tell us how they feel. Instead, we have to give them the space to work through their grief but also show them that we are there if they need us. It’s like walking a tight rope.
Here are a few things to consider when supporting your child through the tragedy of a suicide.
RECOGNIZE EACH TEEN GRIEVES DIFFERENTLY. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. For some, this experience will stir up extremely difficult emotions. For others, their emotional reactions will be minimal often because they don’t truly grasp the concept of death. For those closest to him, they may have feelings of anger which can be confusing and uncomfortable. They may feel happy seeing the community support. They may feel numb while they are still processing what happened. As your teen experiences the gamut of emotions, be their emotional rock through the process.
DON’T PRETEND IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. In difficult situations like these, sometimes it seems like a good idea to not mention what happened and to not talk about it. It’s better to bring it up from time to time. You can ask about how things are going at school, what support is being offered, how close friends are doing, and even ask questions about the person who passed away. Not mentioning what happened gives your teen the message that it’s something that shouldn’t be mentioned.
UNDERSTAND IT’S A LONG-TERM PROCESS. The first week or two after a suicide, there is often a lot of bonding and connection among teens. They might organize events that allow them to talk, cry, laugh, and celebrate life. Then the newness of the situation wears off and life seems to go back to “normal”. But clearly, life has taken a drastic shift for them. It’s when the collective support is gone that the reality of what has happened sets in. For those closest to the suicide victim, their journey through grief will be the longest.
AVOID “MOVE ON” AND “GET OVER IT”. These two terms should be avoided at all costs. They show a blatant disregard for the long-term process of grief. Even if your teen was not particularly close to the teen who passed away, the grief can still be extreme and profound. Be patient, and be understanding that every teen’s grief has its own timetable.
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR OWN EMOTIONS. It’s ok to discuss how you are feeling with your child as long as it doesn’t overshadow your teen’s emotions. Parents clearly have some difficult emotions to deal with when a young person takes his own life. Acknowledge your emotions, talk to your friends/spouse/therapist about them, and then be there to support your child.
Some teens may need professional help to process their feelings and emotions. It’s important to take notice of how your teen is coping with his or her own grief. Don’t forget that you have many options for support in your community. You and your teen are not in this alone.
If your teen is in crisis, they can get help via chat: http://www.crisistextline.org/
With Heart, Coach Sheri