Children and Suicide Loss: Five Things for Caregivers to Know

For a child grieving a loss to suicide, support from parents and other caregivers can make all the difference

Suicide is a trauma that doesn’t discriminate. It affects individuals and families of all kinds – and that often includes children.

Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is an annual event hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region that brings together community members who have lost someone to suicide, and allows them to connect in a supportive space. An integral part of the event, taking place November 7, 2015, is the offer of a kids’ program for children ages 7-12 where they are able to share their own experiences with suicide loss.

All grief is complex, and a child’s grief is no exception. Providing these opportunities for children to speak about their loss is one way that caregivers can support their healing.

Here are five things to understand about children grieving a suicide loss, which may further help parents and other caregivers to provide this important support.

A child’s understanding of death is incomplete
A child’s understanding of death forms over time. According to Hospice Calgary, for example, preschool-age children do not fully understand death as a permanent change. They may have trouble grasping what death really is – that it means a person will no longer eat, sleep, or breathe – and that it cannot be reversed. Caregivers are essential to helping the child make this connection.

Children express grief differently than adults
Children express their grief in ways that adults may not be used to, such as through play. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) suggests encouraging children to express their feelings through writing or drawing. CAMH also notes that storytelling can be an impactful tool for starting a conversation between child and caregiver.

Children experience stigma, too
Just as feelings of guilt or shame can prevent an adult survivor of suicide loss from reaching out for help, so too can these negative attitudes affect children. According to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP), many of these children are often teased or bullied by their peers for having lost a loved one to suicide. The support of a trusted adult can help the child to prepare for these situations.

Children appreciate the truth
Although speaking honestly about a suicide may be challenging and painful, children appreciate the truth. The US-based Dougy Center for Grieving Children recommends talking openly with children about traumatic events such as suicide. Children may respond with anger if they feel that they have been lied to, while honesty can help to establish trust between child and caregiver.

Children deserve professional help
All children grieve differently. According to the Centre for Suicide Prevention (CSP), caregivers can support children by recognizing that all grieving individuals have a unique experience – however, it is an important step to seek professional help if that grief process involves any complications.

Families can find professional help for suicide bereavement by visiting the CASP listings of Alberta Survivor Support Centres. No survivor of suicide loss – child or adult – need ever go it alone.

For more information about CMHA – Calgary Region’s Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, please visit http://calgary.cmha.ca/programs_services/survivors-of-suicide-day

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