When tragedy and heartbreak descend on our community, it can seem difficult to know how to respond, but our community CAN indeed respond. We respond with God’s love. We respond with prayer and an outpouring of tears, memories, and even laughter. Our community can respond by holding one another up during the difficult time of mourning and reminiscing together. We find that a school is an ideal place to witness grief in its many forms, and are quick to point out to students that there is no one “right” way to grieve.
We know many families are eager to better understand how to help their child deal with pain and grieving, and the honest answer is that it depends on the child. However, there are two constants that need to be addressed when the death and consequent grieving is due to a suicide: (1) Acknowledge the person took their own life but note that the cause of death does not need to be disclosed and really should not be. (2) Simply be available and ready to talk to and listen to your child.
Talking to Your Child
We recognize that this can be uncomfortable. In fact, contemporary teens are far more comfortable discussing this than many adults. We know many adults fear that talking about suicide will put ideas into their children’s heads. This is not the truth. Having this open conversation can help both the student and the parent get to the feelings they have. Often there is guilt associated, and a feeling that “If I had… “or “If someone had…” then maybe this could have been prevented. You need to know so you can tell your student this simply isn’t the case. A person who decides to end his or her life has decided that death is the only option. This is not an impulse or a spur-of-the-moment decision. There has been planning. This person has an underlying sense of worthlessness and a feeling that the world would be better without him or her. It is important to reiterate this to your child while also reminding them how devastated you would be, should anything ever happen to them.
Younger children tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves and process their hurt from a place of raw innocence. Teens and pre-teens are often unsure where and how to display their emotions and may not even be able to identify them because they can be far more complicated. Sadness, anger, resentment, avoidance (“I’m fine”), and even guilt are very normal emotions/behaviors to see after being struck with a tragedy. You can help your student to express these feelings and work through them by acknowledging them and using simple phrases such as, “I can see how hard this is for you” or “The pain you are experiencing right now is real. It’s okay to hurt.” While these seem logical, some simply need permission to grieve.
When Faith is Tested
This may also be a time in which a student’s (and even adult’s) faith can be tested. This is also normal, and grieving is a necessary part of God’s pathway to healing. We as believers know that no matter how deep our pain, God can help us find comfort and hope through his promises and through the community of people with which He has surrounded us. We are leaning heavily into prayer during this time and encouraging others to do so as well. Please be sure to remind all that dying in this manner is never God’s plan. God loves his children, and only wants us whole and well.
Consider using the following prayer to with your student to help with the feelings:
Lord - If something on my heart can be used to redeem what happened and used for your glory, leave it there and help me use it for Your redemptive purposes. Anything else on my heart - whether it is guilt, shame, regret, anger, etc. - if you have no use for it, then neither do I. Please remove it! Amen
While a natural reaction may be to want to “fix” the situation and ease our child(ren)’s pain and discomfort, we recommend you refrain from setting a particular timeline for grief or making promises of “it will get better.” In these very complicated situations, there can be no guarantees or quick fixes. Through pain there is healing. This will be a long process. Just because time passes, the feelings of loss will not. Do not be surprised if weeks or months from now your student is saddened or angered all over again. We can’t heal just because some arbitrary timeline says things should be all better.
If you think your student may be struggling with depression, it is never too early to get them help. It is normal for teens to experience highs and lows, but prolonged sadness is not normal and can take on many forms. It is hard to know when what often are viewed as normal teen quirks are also often signs of depression. You want to watch them all but recognize that it is when you see a number of these signs below at once that you should grow concerned.
Outward-facing tendencies to watch for include:
- An increased desire to sleep often accompanied with erratic or “different” sleep patterns
- Being tired or lethargic all the time despite what appears to be ample sleep
- Change in eating habits – could be eating too much or too little
- Withdrawing from activities that once brought them joy
- Change in hygiene
- Being annoyed or angry frequently over things that would not normally cause those reactions
- Social isolation
- Frequent complaints of headaches and/or unexplained body aches or maladies
- Fits of crying and general sadness for no explained reason
- Decline in grades and/or schoolwork (which is often the first sign people notice)
Remember it is seeing these behaviors over an extended period that is an issue. We all have bad days, and we all have moments in which we get angry and just need time to ourselves. It is when many of these symptoms collide for an extended period that we need to seek immediate evaluation and treatment. Also, these are simply the things you can see. Unfortunately, it is more difficult to address the cause of the issue, which are in the inward facing symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness or low self-esteem, just to name two of many. Those are more difficult to pinpoint but talking often with your child can help.
If you or a loved one is suicidal you can simply call 988 from any phone to reach the National Suicide Prevention Line.
Lastly, and very importantly, if you know your child or someone else’s child has struggled or is struggling with depression, please watch them closely during this time, as this can be just one more thing to add to a pile of helplessness and sadness they are already experiencing. If you suspect your own child is struggling or if someone else’s child has confided in you about their struggles in this area, we urge you to get them professional help. We have several contacts we can suggest or reach out to on your behalf. Simply send a message to the child’s school counselor and we will connect you right away.
- The Fernside organization are experts in helping families and children cope with grief. If you would like to visit their website and take advantage of the many different resources they offer, please visit http://www.fernside.org/grief-resources/
- Thrive Point is a counseling service comprised of believers who know the CHCA community well some having sent their children through our school system. https://www.thrivepointe.com/
- Companions on a Journey joined us as we ran grief groups at the school this past week and are another wonderful resource. http://companionsonajourney.org/
If you would like further support coping with suicide and grief, consult these articles and never hesitate to reach out to CHCA’s counseling office.
If you would like further information about grief or need grief counseling, we are fortunate to have many resources on hand. Your counselors are here to support your students during difficult times.
About the Author
Kara Ussery is a licensed school counselor and her role as an admission representative at the University of Missouri led her to this field. Serving as a school and college counselor since 2002, she worked at Indian Hill and Wyoming High Schools prior to joining CHCA in 2015. Kara takes an active role in college admission trends to keep CHCA connected and students ready for all that the college search and application process entails. Kara serves CHCA sophomores through seniors in all aspects of the college process as well as academic counseling. She is also the counselor who works with all of CHCA’s international students.