For Teens: Dealing with a Parent’s Suicide
Dealing with the loss of a parent is always hard but dealing with this when it's because of a parent's suicide is especially so. Children are left wondering what happened, what they did wrong to cause a parent's suicide, what they could have done differently to stop it and a myriad of other questions as well. All the stages of grief – anger, bargaining, denial, depression and acceptance – must be visited by a teen. The teen must fight the stigma that surrounds suicide and handle returning to school where many of her or his classmates may know what happened. And perhaps worst of all, as found by researchers at Johns Hopkins ChildrenCenter, children who are under the age of 18 when a parent dies of suicide are three times as likely to commit suicide themselves when compared to people who lost a parent to suicide over the age of 18.
What a Parent's Suicide Is Like for a Teen
There are no words to express the devastation a teen feels after a parent's suicide. No matter what the relationship between the teen and parent was like, a hole is created deep in the heart of the survivor that can take years of therapy to fill.
Janiva Magness, who lost both her parents to suicide, recalls her mother's death when she was 13 years old:
"The night my mother killed herself, I was having trouble sleeping. I had a feeling that something was wrong, but I stayed in my bed and eventually drifted off. When my father woke me up the next morning, which he'd never done before, I knew that my mother was dead. She'd overdosed on sleeping pills and fell asleep in our garage with the car engine running. I was just 13 years old. I screamed at him and told him it was his fault. He just stood there and said nothing. We never talked about my mother's death again . . . I never had much of a relationship with my mother; I always felt ignored by her and thought she loved my sister more than me. But after she was gone, I felt so much pain."
The Questions a Teen May Ask After a Parent's Suicide
Katrina Diles, who lost her father to suicide at only one, says,
"I have grown up wondering who he was, what his life was like? Which personal characteristics I have taken from him? I have been haunted with so many questions over the years. Wondering why I wasn't enough for him to live. Why I had to grow up without him?"
Other questions a teen may ask include:
- Will I die by suicide too?
- Will my other parent die by suicide too? Will I be left alone?
- If I commit suicide, will I see my parent again?
- What do I tell kids at school?
- Why am I so sad? Will I be sad forever?
- What can I do to start feeling better?
Unfortunately, while these questions are very natural, some have no answers. No one but the parent who has died knows their reasons for suicide and the survivors are left wondering what happened forever.
Dealing with a Parent's Suicide
While the pain of a parent's suicide is very real, it' important to remember that teens can grow up to be happy and healthy and eventually stop hurting.
According to Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, the following are what children need when dealing with a parent's suicide:
- Simple and honest answers to their questions. This is hard for the adult survivors who may want to avoid the topic, but it's important to address teen questions to begin the healing process.
- They need to know their feelings are acceptable. No matter how a teen feels after a parent's suicide, they need to know their feelings are okay. Even rage or relief are natural feelings depending on the circumstances.
- Teens need to know they are not to blame. Children tend to think they cause everything that happens in their lives as they don't yet understand differently. This means that children are more likely to blame themselves than adults. It's important to emphasize that the parent who died was sick and although people tried to help, it didn't work.
- They need to try to get back to a normal routine. This includes going back to school or work and avoiding any media coverage of the suicide.
- And finally, if the grieving doesn't start to dissipate over time, a teen may need professional help to facilitate a healthy grieving process. This help can be found through a psychiatrist, psychologist or even through a support group for suicide survivors.
Last Updated: 14 June 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD