The phrase strikes fear in the heart of parents. The shock that its reality inflicts is massive. Teen suicide, when it occurs, rocks a family, a school, a community to its very core. There are a wide range of reactions to teen suicide, often extreme. The pain and grief is intense and no one is really sure how to deal with it.
Fellow students find themselves questioning themselves, their friendships, their beliefs and the adults they trust. They search for guidance, but often find disappointment. The truth is, adults question themselves and their beliefs, too, in such situations. They do not expect that fellow students will notice the circumstances that drive a teen to such drastic actions, but they believe that they should be able to see. The fear that they did not is overwhelming. Adults, when they are afraid, generally react in one of two ways: They get angry or they attempt to avoid the situation. Neither reaction is productive when attempting to assist teens in dealing with the aftermath of teen suicide.
How can we help those left behind?
First, allow them their grief. Grieving is a healthy, natural process. It is painful to those experiencing it and to those who must watch from the outside and can do nothing to alleviate the pain. However, it is a necessary part of life. Attempting to shorten, staunch or alter the process is not productive or healthy.
Religion is meant to be a comfort to human beings, especially in the difficult situations of life. Everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs, but they should know when it is appropriate to share and when they should keep it to themselves. Whatever God you worship, He knows the heart and mind of the person at the time of their decision. Their final destination is between them and their God. No one else is privilege to that information. Your opinion should be kept to yourself.
Watch and listen carefully. Whether we like to believe it or not, teen suicide is contagious. They consider the fact that they didn’t see it coming; they are confused; they believe their situation to be worse and even if they have never considered suicide before, now it enters their minds. Keep the lines of communication open. Be there when your teen comes home and be ready to talk. Ask them how they are dealing with the situation, if they have questions, if you can help. Listen and accept that even if you don’t agree with their thoughts, this is the way they feel. We cannot change the way we feel. And feelings do not have to logical. Consider that even if their thoughts and feelings are not logical to you, they may be perfectly logical to them.
Counseling is not a bad word. It does not mean that a person is “crazy.” Counseling is an honest admission that things happen in life with which we are often unprepared to deal. It is an opportunity to express our thoughts to an impartial party that can assist us in navigating the trials of life in a positive manner. Be prepared to offer counseling to you teen if they appear to be unable to deal with the situation with only your assistance. Be prepared to reassure them that counseling does not mean that there is anything wrong with them or that you are concerned that they, too, will make the decision of suicide.
Be prepared that dealing with such situations takes time. Do not expect the situation to be resolved with a funeral. The questions will continue to come and the thoughts will continue to plague the minds of fellow teens. They cannot just “get over it.” The grieving process is different for each person and as much as we do not want to deal with the subject of suicide, it is often unavoidable. Once it happens, it can no longer be ignored. Do not try to sweep the event or your teen’s reaction to it under the rug. It will only fester and grow there.
There are many sources of assistance available to deal with suicide. Make use of them. The American Academy for Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has an excellent web site with information for families about teen suicide. The American Psychiatric Association produces an excellent brochure on teen suicide. And, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a very informational site on preventing teen suicide. As much as we would like to avoid this subject, take a moment to educate yourself. You – and possibly your teen - will be glad you did.