Most of us can probably recall the first time we ever experienced the death of a loved one. Whether it was an elderly grandparent, a relative who died from a long-term illness or the beloved family dog, learning of death can be excruciatingly painful. But when a loved one dies by suicide, normal grief reactions such as shock, guilt, denial, anger and depression, may be paired with a deeper sense of guilt, failure and shame than if their loved one died in another way.
Society's attitude toward suicide often intensifies these emotions. Often after a suicide, family members play the "what if" game over and over and may find themselves reliving every mean word they ever said, every wrong decision they made and every turn of event that they believe they could have changed. "What if I had only seen the signs? What if I had stayed home from work that day? What if I had loved a little bit harder?" It's easy to get swept up in this questioning of why it happened and self-doubt, but when you're a parent, your children are looking to you for strength and guidance during this difficult time. What do you do? How do you cope with your own emotions and still continue to parent effectively? How do you talk to your kids about the suicide? Where do you go for help if you need it?
How to cope with your own emotions
As parents, we often have the desire to tend to everyone else's needs first - before our own. It's Parenting 101, right? But to best support your kids over the coming weeks and months, it's important for you to find ways to grieve and take care of yourself, too.
- Get the support you need. Pain, crying and sadness are a part of the grieving process; you are not losing your mind, you are in mourning. While everyone grieves differently, if you begin to feel out of control, hopeless or overwhelmed, you may need some outside help. You could get individual or family counseling, or you may want to join a support group online or in your local community that understands what you are going through. Recognize that it's not your fault. You may wonder, "Why wasn't my love enough? Why couldn't I stop this from happening?" Remember, you are not responsible for the decisions and actions of another human being.
- Pay attention to your health. During times of grief, you may feel that all you want to do is curl up on the couch and eat junk food, but proper sleep, healthy eating and light exercise can help you manage your emotions. In addition, use alcohol in moderation and prescription medication under a doctor's orders only.
- Like other survivors, you will not "get over" the death of someone you love, but will find a new normal. How long will it take to find this normal? Every person is different. For the sake of your children, though, it is important to live life so that they do not lose you as their parent too. You need to survive the death of your loved one, as hard as it may seem. Even in the midst of tragedy and loss, you need to find the strength to move back into your life and your role as a parent without your loved one present. The grieving process takes time and may be easier if you join a support group for surviving family members of suicide. It may help to reach out to others that know and have experienced the pain that goes with the loss of someone to suicide.
How to continue parenting
As parents, we try to protect and shield our children from hurt and harm in every way that we can. We kiss boo-boos, make them wear their seatbelts and hug them after their first heartbreak. But with something as painful and confusing as suicide, where do we begin? Here are some suggestions:
- It's best to tell the basic truth about the suicide. Even young children know when they aren't being told the truth and can become even more upset or anxious by what they sense they aren't being told. However, make sure the details you provide are age-appropriate. Older children may need to talk about the details and their feelings, but it's important to protect younger children from these conversations.
- Answer their questions as they come up as honestly as possible, and keep the communication open. The stigma surrounding suicide can make it extremely difficult for surviving children to deal with their grief and can cause them to feel terribly isolated, as they may not want to upset you with their pain.
- Stick to your daily routines. Children thrive on routine, and it's very reassuring in difficult times if they can count on certain things remaining consistent.
- Remain as calm as you can throughout the first days. Your children's worlds have been turned upside down, and they may feel extremely vulnerable and needy.
- Make sure your kids know they are not responsible for what has happened to your loved one.
As a family, find a special way to memorialize your loved one; however, do not glorify or normalize your loved one's actions, as you don't want suicide to become the family pattern. A trained professional can help educate you and your children on prevention. Some families set up a web page, create a scrapbook, make a donation to a special cause, volunteer somewhere or plan a special family outing to celebrate the person's life, rather than focus on the way the person died. Remembering all of the wonderful contributions of a person's life and the ways the person touched others can be tremendously healing. And make sure your kids know that it's OK to take time off from grieving. You can all smile and enjoy things; this does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
Where to get help
If you are having trouble coping with the loss and need to speak to someone, Military OneSource offers non-medical counseling to address issues such as parenting, stress management, and grief and loss issues. Call 800-342-9647 to find out more. You can also reach out to the military and family support center on your installation for information and local resources, like TAPS at 800-959-TAPS — they have individuals who specialize in surviving suicide. If you are interested in bereavement counseling, call the Department of Veterans Affairs at 202-461-6530. If you or someone you know is suicidal or in a state of crisis, please visit the Military Crisis Line or call 800-273-TALK (8255).