Supporting Children When a Family Member Dies
by Suicide: Communication is Crucial
-Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
Talking to children about any death poses a challenge to parents and
other caregivers. Telling them about a suicide in their own family makes
for an even more difficult conversation. This QPR Quick Quote will feature
information that we have found helpful at the Foundation for helping our
clients and their families when an employee dies as a result of suicide.
Subsequent articles will feature examples of where we have teamed up
with the company, the families and other professionals to manage this
“The child’s doctor, school counselor, teacher, a mental health
therapist, a minister or rabbi and many other professionals can
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute
Children recognize that something bad has happened, sooner than most
people realize. It is therefore crucial that children be informed in an
age-appropriate way, compassionately and directly by a parent or family
member as soon as possible. If a parent or family member is not available,
the discussion should involve someone the child knows and trusts—like a
teacher or counselor who is already part of the child’s life.
Knowing what to say and how to explain what has happened challenges
even the most trained professionals, due to the critical nature of the
conversation for the long-term adjustment of the children. Therefore, we
recommend using the team approach advocated by the QPR Institute.
Getting advice and pointers on this difficult discussion has proven helpful
to many adults. If the family does not already have a trusted counselor or
minister who can provide advice, we encourage the family to seek advice
and assistance from a counselor associated with their Employee Assistance
Program (EAP) or obtain a referral from a local medical or clerical resource.
The age and stage of a child, as well as their closeness to the person who
died, should be taken into consideration—as well as the circumstances
surrounding the death. Experts agree that it is important to use simple
non-judgmental words and the information should be factual, and
unnecessary details should be omitted. Other pointers include sitting with
the child and paying attention to how they are responding—allowing time
for their questions and concerns. Making time for follow up questions and
concerns will also prove helpful long-term. At school and other social
settings, children may hear things that are alarming or inconsistent with
what was learned from the family. Checking in allows for continual
clarification and prevents isolation for the children who often feel invisible
during family crises.
Stories abound where adults have failed to be honest with children about
the cause of death in cases of suicide of a family member. Many children,
lied to initially, later learn the truth about the death and the long-term
harm done with this deception is tragic. Children tend to internalize their
loved one’s pain, often blaming themselves for things they do not
understand. Discussing the suicide, as painful and emotional as this can
be, allows children to feel connected to the adults in their lives and
promotes the sense that the grief is shared—as is the eventual healing.
These discussions also instill a sense of trust and promotes bonding
among family members.
"Sometimes life is overwhelming for parents too. Depression,
alcohol or drug abuse, failed relationships, abusive relationships,
the death of a spouse, and many other problems can arise in life
and put you in the middle of your own emotional storm. If you
need help, do your child a favor and get help."
-Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.,
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute
Several years ago, at a Foundation Symposium, family members from a
fatal airline crash that occurred in the fifties, presented about the
challenges their families faced at the time. This accident happened before
the field of family assistance in business and industry evolved. The
presenters were middle-aged adults who were small children at the time
the totally-fatal accident occurred. Most of them had grown up with little
if any memory of their parents who died in the crash. In a side
conversation, one of the speakers shared an additional part of her story
which is relevant to this article.
This woman, now a mother herself, lost her father in the crash. This left
her mother to raise her young family with very few resources, financial
and otherwise. The children were quite young—this survivor was not in
grade school at the time and was the oldest of four. A couple of years after
the death of her father, she learned that his parents, her paternal
grandparents, had died in a car crash. The hardships faced by her mother
and the children were intensified by this additional loss.
Years later when this survivor went away to college, she became
acquainted with a cousin she had not known well while growing up. One
day in a casual conversation her cousin mentioned the tragic loss of her
father in the plane crash and the subsequent suicides of his parents—her
paternal grandparents. Asking for more details, the survivor learned that
her father’s parents were so grieved by their son’s death in the crash,
that they lost their will to live. In addition to the shock about her
grandparents’ deaths, she felt betrayed by her entire family, as everyone
knew the details of their deaths, except for her and her siblings.
Devastated by what she heard, the survivor immediately called her
mother and demanded to know the truth. Her mother admitted that she
had lied to her and all of her children. She explained that the loss of her
husband left her feeling overwhelmed—and then when she learned that
his parents had died by self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning, it was
more than she could handle. She explained that she did not know what
else to do, so she fabricated the story about their deaths having
occurred in a car accident.
This story provides a clear example of why parents are well-served to
seek help when necessary from informed, educated others, as the
consequences of their actions will have a long-term impact on everyone
involved. When the survivor learned that she had been lied to about
such an important event in her life, she started to question her entire
childhood. She questioned her relationship with her mother, as well as
the relationships with all of the adults in her life, who were part of the
deception. Years of therapy could not restore the trust in her mother
or other family members, nor reverse the feelings of violation that she
felt over the lie about how her grandparents had died.
At the Foundation’s QPR Gatekeeper Training, we discuss similar cases as
part of our education and training as to what constitutes best practice in
situations such as this. Suicide prevention is a serious subject, but
working as teams with mutual goals, we know we are saving lives and
preventing unnecessary harms such as the story of the aviation family
survivor discussed above. The next two QPR Quick Quotes will involve
examples where Foundation leadership, the member corporation
involved, and the surviving parent, worked together to include the
children, thereby preventing them from learning the truth later—and
feeling betrayed. Working with mental health professionals, other steps
were taken to ensure that needs for both the children and the parent
were considered for the long-term.
If you are interested in learning more about how to become a Gatekeeper
and becoming part of a more extensive network that is dedicated to
suicide prevention, see www.qprinstitute.com. To learn more about the
training classes offered by the Family Assistance Foundation and for
information about upcoming Gatekeeper classes and how you can
become a trainer within your workplace go to fafonline.org. You can also
contact Stephen Young at email@example.com.
Upcoming Gatekeeper Trainings
Hong Kong Gatekeeper Training
Hong Kong Train-the-Trainer
QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer and is a research-based
intervention that anyone can learn. The Foundation works with the QPR
Institute to customize this successful intervention for cruise lines,
aviation companies, human resources professionals and other workplace
groups. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org at the Foundation if you
would like to know more about how you can learn to be a QPR Gatekeeper
in your organization. You can also learn how you can become a certified
trainer of the QPR Gatekeeper model. Contact the Foundation to discuss
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