The grief that follows losing someone to suicide is often devastating. Many young people are impacted by suicide loss; in fact, one in five teens has lost a friend, relative, or acquaintance to suicide.
Suicide becomes more likely when poor mental health and multiple stressors combine to create an experience of hopelessness, pain, and despair. Although depression is the most common condition associated with suicide, other conditions like bipolar disorder, anxiety, and substance use problems, especially when untreated, increase the risk for suicide. In some cases, major stressful events can also increase the risk.
Fortunately, most people who get support for their suicidal thoughts or behaviors do recover and lead meaningful lives. You may be wondering what you can do to support your teen through this loss. Here are some important things you should know:
There is nobody to blame.
It is common to struggle with questions like: "What could I have done differently? Why did this happen? Could I have prevented it? Was it my fault?" A big part of healing is learning to live with these unanswered questions. Suicide is complex, and many factors play a role. There is rarely a single cause or reason for a young person taking their own life. Attempting to answer these questions can extend the mourning process. However, with adequate support, it can also aid in finding meaning and making sense of the loss.
Everyone grieves and heals in their own way.
Grief is a difficult process to experience. However, grieving a suicide loss comes with unique challenges. Some of the many possible emotions your teen may experience include shock, shame, guilt, abandonment, confusion, and anger towards the deceased. A suicide loss survivor needs a safe space to process the loss, and you can provide that by simply being there and listening without judgment, advice, or criticism. Those who are grieving a suicide loss and do not have a strong support system may be more prone to self-harm and other risky behaviors to cope. You too may be grieving; caring for yourself is key.
Healing can be helped by finding others who have experienced a loss by suicide.
Stigma or excessive judgment can interfere with the healing process. This is especially relevant for teens who are heavily influenced by peers and highly value social acceptance. Finding other loss survivors who understand what your teen may be going through is helpful.
Help them seek help.
How caregivers view mental health can greatly impact help-seeking behaviors in teens. It can be easier for teens to come to their caregivers for help when those caregivers view seeking help in a positive light. You can help by sharing information on how and where to find crisis resources, such as the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (988), identifying symptoms and risk factors of mental disorders, expressing empathy and support, and understanding the value of developing a safety plan.
Remember the positives and honor their loved one to move through the grief.
Help your teen remember the good times and focus on hope and forgiveness. Allowing them to share their story at their own pace could be healing and empowering. Help them honor their loved one’s memory through a ceremony, art, or advocacy. This can look like sharing their favorite memories with close friends, lighting a candle and saying a prayer, creating a painting, volunteering to help others, or journaling what they wish they could have said. This allows for an opportunity to find a new identity and narrative, typically that of a survivor of suicide loss, which provides meaning and can also serve as a protective factor.
If you or your child need immediate help due to having suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line by texting "START" to 741-741. If there is an immediate safety concern, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Let them know you will get through this together.
Elena Camacho is a Behavioral Health Suicide Prevention Specialist at the Behavioral Health Pavilion at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
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