Teen Suicide: How to Explain Your Grief to Your Child

Last updated on January 27th, 2017 at 03:25 pm

My son is now fourteen and a Freshman in High School. Within months of starting the new school year, his high school marching band community suffered tragedy: the suicide of one of its members. And despite the large number of kids in the band – this tragedy was close. The boy who died, Patrick, was the head of my son’s instrument section.

teen suicide - my griefI didn’t know Patrick well, but the impact of his death on me was surprising.  Both the fact and the nature of it were a profound shock when I first heard about it – via text from my son when he arrived at school one Friday morning.

The next several days were a painful procession of events and rituals: gatherings at homes of the kids, a candlelight vigil at the school stadium where the band regularly practiced, visitations and funeral mass at the local Catholic Church.

I was concerned for my son, but I was also in pain. I cried a lot. I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to know “why?”  I kept picturing Patrick at practices. He was extremely alive, outgoing and very good looking. None of this should matter, but somehow it did. When we learned he had shot himself in a moment of despair over getting in some trouble, I thought about his parents. I was sick at the thought. I was also angry. Angry that he thought this was his only option. Angry that he had access to a gun.

My son was surprised by my grief. He kept saying that I hardly knew Patrick, and he didn’t expect me to want to attend the various gatherings. I began to feel that he might think I was “muscling in” on a situation that was personal to him. Certainly he and the others in his small instrument section were closing ranks and I let him go out with them a lot, and had a couple of boys stay for a sleepover after the vigil. He was crying a lot too and talking with his peers seemed to help.

But I was pretty sure my son couldn’t see past his own confusion and grief to know that I was also genuinely in pain. I couldn’t find a lot of resources for parent grief when a child’s friend dies, but one website – the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS) – gave some good advice: First deal with your own feelings.

“It is critical for you to take time to deal with your own feelings before you approach your child.  Remember the directives from air travel about the use of oxygen masks – you must put on your own mask before you can help anyone else with theirs!”   SPTS

I thought about all the reasons why I was so upset: the senseless loss, empathy for his parents, concern for the impact on my son, even worry that some incidents between my son and Patrick (which I spoke to the Band Director about)  might have contributed to the suicide decision. Bottom line, I think it was just that it felt so wrong for a boy of just 17 to die like this. Thankfully, my son is a fairly good communicator – and so, finally, I talked about how I was in pain too and I asked if he had thoughts on why I was grieving even though I wasn’t close to Patrick. He was quite perceptive since he understood that I didn’t want the same thing to happen to him. But he didn’t realize how much I was identifying with Patrick’s parents, feeling at least some of their pain. And I couldn’t let things return to “normal” right away. The police officer who led the long snaking line of cars to the cemetery gave out large stickers reading “funeral” for our windshields. I kept the sticker on my console for a few weeks afterwards. It felt right to have a visible reminder of what had happened, and not to “move on” too quickly.

In the end, talking about my grief gave us a shared experience for coping with the ordeal. It also made it possible to talk about suicide in general and how, as someone I know put it: “suicide is a terrible and permanent solution to a temporary problem” – even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.

Resources for dealing with teen suicide:

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

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