Today’s guest is Michelle Fletcher, with a very difficult topic: how do you support a parent who’s lost a child to suicide? It’s a tragedy that we are seeing so much more of in recent years. Michelle herself has a couple of friends who have lost children to suicide, so she speaks from experience. It’s difficult to know what to say, or how to help. Michelle has some very pertinent tips and reminders.
It’s important to remember that we grieve deeply because we have loved deeply. If we didn’t love deeply we wouldn’t grieve so deeply. We’re not only grieving the loss of a child, but the future, the hopes and dreams they had, the hopes and dreams we had for them, and all the things that could have been. The grief of a parent after a child’s suicide has its own complexity and dynamics.
Show Notes – Supporting a parent after a child’s suicide
- Grief is unpredictable, and although there is a general pattern (many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) people don’t necessarily go through the stages in the same order, or experience all of them. Sometimes people visit a stage many times over, as well. It goes backwards and forwards, and just when you think you’re coming out of it you’ll find yourself back in the thick of it.
- People’s responses may be unpredictable- there’s no right response to grief. Be led by them, and be aware that every person is different. Be mindful that this is a real emotional crisis. Don’t be afraid to refer them on to a GP or mental health service if they need it.
- Each person is different, and the type of comfort they need will be different as well. Again, be led by them, don’t try to enforce your thoughts onto them.
- Understand that there is no fixing this. Comforting means “being with” them in their grief, not trying to talk them out of it because you feel uncomfortable with it. You don’t have to fix this (you can’t), or rescue them. If you feel uncomfortable with it, maybe find other ways to help, such as cooking meals, cleaning the house, babysitting younger children, shopping, flowers, or a card or letter.
- Know when to step away. Don’t outstay your welcome. People need space, too.
- Allow the person to talk about their child as often as they need to, in whatever way they need to. Sometimes there are no answers. Don’t feel you have to correct their memories of them unless you have the right kind of relationship to do that.
- Suicide is not an easy decision to understand. Teenagers are often impulsive, they have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, and sometimes they can’t see any other options. They don’t necessarily want to kill themselves, but can’t see an alternative to stop the pain. Also, it might have been an accident. It may be helpful to remember that the person did what they thought was best at that time.
People often look to us as Christians for life’s big answers:
- Many people’s biggest question is “Why did God allow this?” In reality, it’s the devil who comes to rob, kill, steal and destroy, not God…He is love, mercy and grace. He loved the world so much that He gave His only son, Jesus to die for us to set us free and to give us abundant life, not a life crippled with pain, shame and fear.
- We live in a broken and fallen world where people have free will. God will not intervene against people’s free will and sometimes people make choices that they think is best at the time. This includes suicide.
- Watch out for people’s deteriorating mental health. And take care of yourself as you take care of them.
- Be comfortable and honest if you don’t know what to say. Don’t say “I know how this feels” if you don’t.
Instead, admit you don’t understand. “I can’t imagine your pain….”
Tips for parents:
Extracted and adapted from https://afsp.org/9-suggestions-parents-lost-child-suicide/
Be kind to yourself.
You have suffered an incredible loss: possibly the worst loss a person can experience. It will be incredibly difficult. You’ll be overwhelmed with a whole range of different emotions. Please know this is normal. You may feel like you are going crazy, but you’re not. Try to get enough rest. Even if you can’t sleep, your body knows when you are resting. Try to remember that this stage will not last forever and the acute grief usually settles for most people. Remember to eat, even if you don’t have much of an appetite- keeping your blood sugar levels normal will help you feel better.
The healing process takes time. Getting to a better place takes work. It’s worth it.
Join a support group.
If you can’t join an in-person group, find a supportive one online. Losing a child is a special grief, and those who haven’t lost a child won’t fully be able to understand. If the group you join doesn’t feel right for you, try it for a few weeks, then find a different one.
Seek one-on-one counseling.
Having someone you can talk to about anything, especially your child, can be a huge comfort. A good counselor will listen without judgement to help you navigate the peaks and valleys of grief. You may need to visit a few different counselors to find the right one, but when you do, it can have a profound impact on you and your family.
People may say a lot of stupid things in response to a suicide loss. Or, they may just be things that don’t resonate for you, personally. (Two I personally can’t stand are, “God will not give you any more than you can handle,” and, “Everything happens for a reason.” Nowhere in the Bible does God promise he will not give you more than you can handle.) Certainly, if someone is being negative and telling you to “just get over it,” or anything else that is hurtful or unhelpful, it is perfectly okay to speak up. Tell them you know they mean to be helpful, but that what they are saying is not.
Understand your personal grief is different from anyone else’s.
What someone else is going through, or has gone through, may not be what you are experiencing, and that’s okay. Some things may be helpful for one person, but not for you. That’s absolutely normal. Do what is right for you.
Understand that what happened is not your fault.
You may blame yourself and wonder what you could have done differently. For a long time, many parents play their child’s death over and over in their head. They constantly think of different scenarios that might have saved them. These thoughts often cause more pain and don’t change a thing. Keep reminding yourself that it’s not your fault.
Let people help you.
Don’t push people away. If you are married, be there for each other. If you typically isolate yourself during times of great pain or sadness it can make the grief so much worse. We all have different ways of grieving but never forget that there are people who love you and truly want to help.
If you or someone you know needs help, reach out today:
Lifeline Call 13 11 14
Beyond Blue Call 1300 22 4636
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