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721 N. LaSalle Street
Chicago, IL 60654

Main Line: (312) 655-7283
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When Younger Children Learn About Suicide
Monday, September 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Occasionally, during the intake of a  family with children into the LOSS Program for Children and Youth, a parent of a younger child voices concern about what the child might do with information that his or her loved one died by suicide.  The parent may express worry that the child will tell others who would use it to tease the child or to spread gossip.  It is understandable that parents would want to protect children from the misuse of information about a suicide loss.  Because of a lingering stigma attached to suicide, insecurity about how the world will respond is common.   It may require some new thinking on the part of parents if they become aware that their child’s needs around the information doesn’t line up with their own needs or concerns.  Some children want to be “out” with the way their loved one died, while others maintain discretion out of an inherent need for privacy.  In their own ways, younger children, perhaps starting at age six, construct some kind of meaning regarding the suicide loss, and this may influence how and whether  the information is shared.  If a healing atmosphere is cultivated around the loss, even young children can respond to the suicide of a loved one with care and respect.    Parents may discover that children who process grief through on-going family conversations and supplemental grief services are more likely to cherish life and relationships, and to be happy with who they are, even as they grow up with loss.  How a child is supported in grieving a loss goes a great distance in the way he or she shares it with the world.   Bereaved families and children can be helped to face the future with open and honest communication about death, loss and specifically, suicide.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth works sensitively with families to begin a conversation about suicide that can be gradually taken in by the child, and later communicated with others.  When children have relational opportunities to work with grief, they also learn about respect and safety and trust.  We want these quality experiences to inform the way children share themselves and their losses with the world as they develop and move forward.   The children’s program recognizes that honesty with children about suicide is important, but the learning is commensurate with the child’s emotional and cognitive capacities.  A clinician will assess each child according to his or her disposition and developmental age, not specific age, and consideration is given to the child’s characteristic response to earlier losses and the way in which the child takes in new information.  The suicide information is not a subject for discussion until it is clear that the child has a capacity to understand that the deceased person “stopped his or her own body from working because of a sickness in the brain.”

 Death education, the first conversations that arise when children are curious about a dead bug or bird, serve as the initial steps to confronting the loss of a person close to them.  Children cannot understand a  suicide if they are not familiar with biological death, and the permanence that defines it.  In a 1973 study, J.D. Melear found that until approximately age six, children vary in their conceptions of death regarding irreversibility and biological functions.  These children may see death as temporary and may perceive that the deceased person still has biological functions. Grief work at this level is gentle and includes parent consultation.  The clinician can help a parent to show his or her child the stillness and permanence of death.  The child learns that after death the body no longer needs food, does not walk or talk or eat food.  The body cannot wake up, and so we have to say goodbye.  When the parent and child are ready, the child will learn later from the prepared parent that the person they loved died quickly from a sickness in the brain that caused them to stop their own body from working.
 
Grief therapy teaches a compassionate and serious message about the suicide of a loved one.  Children hear that their loved one’s death is very important.  An adult’s manner of presence, the voice tones and the genuineness of emotional support are important in engaging a child in an inclusive process of family grief.  As children are capable of conveying their loss experience and integrating the loss into their daily lives, they seem to understand the loss as sacred.  A parent or caregiver can suggest that children only talk about the loss at home for a while, and then gradually share information with close friends but we haven’t seen children talk glibly about the suicide death of a parent or sibling.  We usually see children develop wisdom and some discretion around the loss.  When children develop a compassionate understanding of suicide, they are more capable of overcoming the sting of insensitive remarks that arise out of ignorance.  

The story that a child tells him or herself about the loss, and the way that they interface with the world around the loss is part of the grief journey, part of coping.  They are forever impacted by the loss, because the developing self is shaped around it.  We hope to help parents help their children find strength as they mature with a strong sense of self.
  
When parents are overwhelmed with grief, a sense of the world as an unsafe or hostile place may be sharpened.   It is important to bring awareness to this as you parent your grieving child.  By consciously exploring your own thoughts, reactions and emotions about death and suicide it becomes more possible to help your child face the loss and all that unfolds from that moment.

Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. a pre-eminent children’s grief specialist has written a book, Helping Children Cope with Grief  (1983).   His words are enriching, comforting, and informed by the resilience that he has witnessed in grieving children.  It is hopeful to read that grief work in the very young can become the basis for healthy development, increased emotional safety and more intimate communication between parent and child.
 
Melear, J.D. (1973). Children’s conceptions of death.  The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 123 (2), 359-360.



Archives:

When Younger Children Learn About Suicide
Monday, September 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Occasionally, during the intake of a  family with children into the LOSS Program for Children and Youth, a parent of a younger child voices concern about what the child might do with information that his or her loved one died by suicide.  The parent may express worry that the child will tell others who would use it to tease the child or to spread gossip.  It is understandable that parents would want to protect children from the misuse of information about a suicide loss.  Because of a lingering stigma attached to suicide, insecurity about how the world will respond is common.   It may require some new thinking on the part of parents if they become aware that their child’s needs around the information doesn’t line up with their own needs or concerns.  Some children want to be “out” with the way their loved one died, while others maintain discretion out of an inherent need for privacy.  In their own ways, younger children, perhaps starting at age six, construct some kind of meaning regarding the suicide loss, and this may influence how and whether  the information is shared.  If a healing atmosphere is cultivated around the loss, even young children can respond to the suicide of a loved one with care and respect.    Parents may discover that children who process grief through on-going family conversations and supplemental grief services are more likely to cherish life and relationships, and to be happy with who they are, even as they grow up with loss.  How a child is supported in grieving a loss goes a great distance in the way he or she shares it with the world.   Bereaved families and children can be helped to face the future with open and honest communication about death, loss and specifically, suicide.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth works sensitively with families to begin a conversation about suicide that can be gradually taken in by the child, and later communicated with others.  When children have relational opportunities to work with grief, they also learn about respect and safety and trust.  We want these quality experiences to inform the way children share themselves and their losses with the world as they develop and move forward.   The children’s program recognizes that honesty with children about suicide is important, but the learning is commensurate with the child’s emotional and cognitive capacities.  A clinician will assess each child according to his or her disposition and developmental age, not specific age, and consideration is given to the child’s characteristic response to earlier losses and the way in which the child takes in new information.  The suicide information is not a subject for discussion until it is clear that the child has a capacity to understand that the deceased person “stopped his or her own body from working because of a sickness in the brain.”

 Death education, the first conversations that arise when children are curious about a dead bug or bird, serve as the initial steps to confronting the loss of a person close to them.  Children cannot understand a  suicide if they are not familiar with biological death, and the permanence that defines it.  In a 1973 study, J.D. Melear found that until approximately age six, children vary in their conceptions of death regarding irreversibility and biological functions.  These children may see death as temporary and may perceive that the deceased person still has biological functions. Grief work at this level is gentle and includes parent consultation.  The clinician can help a parent to show his or her child the stillness and permanence of death.  The child learns that after death the body no longer needs food, does not walk or talk or eat food.  The body cannot wake up, and so we have to say goodbye.  When the parent and child are ready, the child will learn later from the prepared parent that the person they loved died quickly from a sickness in the brain that caused them to stop their own body from working.
 
Grief therapy teaches a compassionate and serious message about the suicide of a loved one.  Children hear that their loved one’s death is very important.  An adult’s manner of presence, the voice tones and the genuineness of emotional support are important in engaging a child in an inclusive process of family grief.  As children are capable of conveying their loss experience and integrating the loss into their daily lives, they seem to understand the loss as sacred.  A parent or caregiver can suggest that children only talk about the loss at home for a while, and then gradually share information with close friends but we haven’t seen children talk glibly about the suicide death of a parent or sibling.  We usually see children develop wisdom and some discretion around the loss.  When children develop a compassionate understanding of suicide, they are more capable of overcoming the sting of insensitive remarks that arise out of ignorance.  

The story that a child tells him or herself about the loss, and the way that they interface with the world around the loss is part of the grief journey, part of coping.  They are forever impacted by the loss, because the developing self is shaped around it.  We hope to help parents help their children find strength as they mature with a strong sense of self.
  
When parents are overwhelmed with grief, a sense of the world as an unsafe or hostile place may be sharpened.   It is important to bring awareness to this as you parent your grieving child.  By consciously exploring your own thoughts, reactions and emotions about death and suicide it becomes more possible to help your child face the loss and all that unfolds from that moment.

Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D. a pre-eminent children’s grief specialist has written a book, Helping Children Cope with Grief  (1983).   His words are enriching, comforting, and informed by the resilience that he has witnessed in grieving children.  It is hopeful to read that grief work in the very young can become the basis for healthy development, increased emotional safety and more intimate communication between parent and child.
 
Melear, J.D. (1973). Children’s conceptions of death.  The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 123 (2), 359-360.