by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
This month we’re paraphrasing a question/issue that has come up on the website a few times in recent months:
My son’s teacher called last night. She had gotten a call from a parent who was very upset that my son had told her child, “My Daddy shot himself in the face.” I don’t know what she thought I should do about it. Should I be doing something differently? I want my son to be comfortable and open, not ashamed of what happened, but I don’t want to alienate people or have them avoiding us either.
It’s ironic, and very difficult, when a family that has recently experienced a death to suicide finds out they’re making others uncomfortable. It seems like the ones who are dealing with this loss every single day – and in the trenches of grief – shouldn’t have to be concerned with how it’s affecting other folks who are on the very periphery of the experience. Realistically, however, we still live with others all around us, and many of them are helpful, caring, and supportive.
Occasionally, a grieving family hears that their story is upsetting to others and that others don’t know how to respond. Or perhaps our child has blurted out some rather difficult or graphic information about the death of our loved to another (unprepared) child or in an less-than-optimal setting. How can we help our kids to have information about what happened and have permission to talk about their experience in a way that is safe for them and doesn’t create barriers with others?
When we talk with our children about what happened to the important person who died, we can try to de-emphasize the strong images that a death by suicide can invoke. We have written blogs (still available on this website) about sharing this difficult news with children, and we hope you will take a moment to refer back to it. Our primary message is to “take the drama (as much as possible) out of the trauma.” Saying, “Mom ended her life (or “made her body stop working”) by stopping her breathing” causes less reaction than saying, “Mom hung herself.” “Dad ended his life by injuring himself. He used a gun,” creates a less powerful or shocking image than, “He shot himself in the face.” Even if the child saw the aftermath or if he’s been told that level of detail, we can sometimes help re-write or re-frame the story about what happened by consistently using more carefully chosen words as we talk about the death going forward.
We don’t want our children to keep the death a secret or make them feel uncomfortable about sharing that they’ve lost a parent – or any other significant person in their lives. We don’t stigmatize death from illness, and we need to remember that death from suicide is also a death from illness – clinical depression, bi-polar disease, or extreme anxiety disorder. Our children need to be told and reminded that their person was ill at the time of his or her death. They need a name for the illness and an explanation of how sick brains can cause fear, hopelessness, and confusion and that sometimes these thoughts and feelings end with a person deciding to make his or her body stop working. When a person dies this way, it’s called “suicide.” Although it may sound counter-intuitive, encourage your child to use that word when describing what happened. It’s honest and fair and descriptive without being as dramatic, traumatic, and vivid as relating the circumstances of the death might be.