Today has been etched deeply into my memory. I had the privilege, but also the confronting sadness, of counselling three separate families, broken and confused by suicide. As a loss, grief and trauma counselor I daily see people in emotional pain as they try to grapple with the loss of loved ones, but grappling with suicide is so much more difficult! There is a certain desperation as family and friends try to make sense of the person’s death. The overwhelming feeling of guilt playing tune to tortured thoughts that they should have ‘read the signs’, ‘taken more notice’, ‘watched out more’, ‘asked more questions’, ‘spent more time’ with the person who has taken their life. Loved ones are left feeling empty and hollow, with few answers to their many questions. Another layer of grief is added if there was a prior argument, angry words or throw-away remarks made before the suicide. Guilt and the feeling of remorse is intensified and often proliferates into a sense of shame.
Sadly, children are never immune. One of my clients, a 7-year-old girl (I will call her Isabelle), lost her father to suicide four months ago, just as school was ending and families were getting ready for Christmas. Unimaginable grief and so many unanswered questions. She lies awake at night believing that if she had stayed awake the night daddy was feeling really sad, he wouldn’t have died. Isabelle is frightened as she observes her mother grieve, believing that when she sees mummy looking sad, like daddy was, mummy will die at night also. Isabelle thinks about times she disobeyed her dad, the tantrums when she didn’t get her own way, wondering if these behaviours ‘caused’ him to be sad and die. Hypervigilant behaviours have become common and she has developed an anxious, impending sense of doom that something bad will happen and others in her family will also die. Isabelle’s anxious thoughts have led to night terrors and OCD behaviours of locking doors, checking windows and needing certain lights on in the house in an attempt to feel safe. She can no longer sleep in her own room but feels the need to protect mummy in her bed.
Helping a child in times of loss begins with acknowledging the death, as well as recognising and allowing emotional vulnerability. When the limbic system is aroused in situations of sadness and grief, a child will respond behaviourally, as their emotional pain along with the physiological response of a racing heart and a churning tummy feels so bad, they just want it to stop! Young children do not have the words to describe how they are feeling so they may withdraw and appear to be coping, but many children act out or play up. Both withdrawing and avoiding, or acting out and becoming more aggressive, are behavioural attempts to have their needs met.
How to help:
A child’s response to loss is also influenced by adults around them. Adults can help regulate a child’s emotional brain and activate the Pre-Frontal Cortex. Acknowledging, identifying and addressing a child’s emotional pain brings value to the child’s feelings of sadness and normalizes the fear and anxiety surrounding the grief
Adults can become anxious wondering what to say to a child, particularly in the situation of suicide. Questions of what should a child be told, and how much should a child be told, are common. We don’t want to add to a child’s emotional pain, so the fear of upsetting a child more, combined with not knowing how to approach the sensitive topic of death and suicide, adults decide to say little or nothing at all. But the silence is deafening and confusing. Children are left wondering why everyone seems to be talking in secrets, or not talking at all. This adds to a child’s fears and anxiety surrounding death, heightening the belief that if people can’t talk about it, maybe they (the child) are to blame. So, what can we do to help a child heal from suicide loss? This is a question I will explore in future blog posts. Please add your comments and experiences in discussion board below. It is through our engaged and creative dialogue that we will find how to help these wonderful, but wounded children.