The grief of a child is very real
Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade.
We know these names.
We know who they were by their skills, their accomplishments and sadly, their deaths. Both chose to die by suicide. They share one other detail as well. Both left behind young daughters. Bourdain’s is 11 years old; Spade’s is 13.
Expression of grief is different for children than adults and depends on the developmental stage when loss occurs.
It is normal for children to experience grief spurts, changing emotions in an instant. Because it can look so dramatically different from the way adults experience grief, it was widely thought children had no inkling of the tremendous emotional upheaval happening around them.
It was only in recent memory that it was recognized that children grieve.
It is important to remember that children have an innate sense of the world around them and are more aware than given credit for. It is for this reason that caring adults should explain about a death with truth and age appropriate language. Not doing so can damage the trust between child and adult. Talking to a child about a death is one of the most difficult things to do, especially with all the unanswered questions a suicide can bring.
However, with their imaginations and literal thinking, the belief in “softening” the explanation may lead to confusion and worse trauma occurring.
Children who have experienced a loss, including from a suicide, may find art and play therapy beneficial for expressing the emotions they are feeling. Physical activity is also important.
While the adults may experience a lack of energy, it is important to find a way for the children to burn theirs, perhaps by taking part in activities with a trust-worthy adult or older youth acting as “playmate”. Alarming to adults, children may express a wish to die too.
Realize this means, in their language, a desire to reunite with the individual who died, as opposed to an actual longing for death themselves.
As younger ages do not understand the permanence of death, be prepared should indicators point to more. Control becomes important when a sudden loss happens, and kids should be given as much as is age appropriate. Children search for and assign reasons to a death. Usually they blame themselves, feel guilty or believe they had the power to prevent it. Knowledge, along with reassurances and support from family and friends, is essential.
For older children and teens, grief is even more complex. While they may have a better understanding of the circumstances of a death, at this time period they are looking for ways to connect and fit in with their peers. Likely a death, especially from suicide, will distance them instead. In the case of a peer dying by suicide, a teen thinks of his or her own mortality, which is in direct opposition to their feelings of invincibility. Teens can feel isolated and lonely when loss occurs, and a suicide by someone close to them leaves a feeling of abandonment, mistrust of relationships and the belief it will happen to someone else they care about.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention states “Helping teens to find a voice to express their experience can be difficult. For teens especially, the ability to be surrounded by others their age who have had a similar tragedy touch their life can be very beneficial to their healing process.”
If you are, or know of, a teen whose life has been touched by suicide or other loss and who would be interested in participating in a free, local support group, please email [email protected] for more information.
In case of urgent life threatening situations please go to the nearest hospital or call 911/RCMP. Non-emergency resources include Saskatchewan Mental Health Centralized Intake at 1-877-329-0005, KidsHelpPhone (ages 20 and under) 1-800-668-6868 (online or on the phone), or Medicine Hat Distress Centre which offers an online confidential chat from 3-10 pm MT or call their 24 hour crisis line at 1-403-266-4357.