How to Mindfully Talk to your Children after a Suicide in their World
When she cries, my heart hurts.
My teenager niece has had to deal with 2 deaths in less than 3 weeks. Her godfather died in a brief period from a liver failure at 53. He was an amazing friend to the family and physical education teacher and husband. All of us felt the loss.
This week, one of her K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun heroes — the SHINee singer best known by his stage name, Jonghyun — took his life after his struggles with depression. The music idol’s death left millions of fans around the world in shock especially since the week before he was on stage and seemed successful and happy.
I may be trained as a counselor, teacher and psychologist yet I struggled to speak to her about this. I struggled as although I was trained in the numbers and the reasons for suicide and know how to speak about suicide prevention in large groups or to counselors and teachers as part of prevention education; they were all emotionally less close to home.
I was still reeling from the death of our family friend and I often go inward and become quieter when I have to deal with my emotions . So to reach out to her in my own pain was the challenge I had.
How do I speak to someone in my own pain? Which is usually what would have happen in a case of a family death or death of loved family friends. Rather than avoid or brush it aside with a one-liner, I deeply encourage parents and elders to reach into themselves and their own emotional coping mechanisms to come to a place where they can hold the space for a deep discussion about life and death with their children.
Of course, we all hope never to have such a conversation. However, in recent years with terrorism and the school violence and volatility of being a teen it makes such an emotive discussion a necessary modern conversational piece. Almost as crucial as the dread “sex talk”. Speaking with compassion and wisdom about suicide and death has is the new necessary parenting skill.
Suicide is the 2nd cause of death of youth 10–24 in the States. In China, every two minutes a Chinese person takes their own life, and it is resulting in the largest suicide problem in the world. The suicide problem in China is different than any other place in the world. For starters, in the United States 90–95% of all suicides are preceded by depression and other forms of mental illness, while in China, only 60% of suicides are by people who are considered mentally ill by a study. Being depressed increases likelihood twenty times, while anxiety and alcohol abuse make a person six to ten times more likely to commit suicide, according to an article. In the world according to 2015 OECD data, there are nearly 30 suicide deaths per 100,000 people in South Korea; Japan, Hungary and Slovenia follow with nearly 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people. This is not a definite piece on suicides so do look up your own research. This however is telling of the trend for self harm and death as an increasing option for many.
In collectivist cultures and cultures which tend to enforce social norms like many countries in Asia, suicide is a legitimate means of conveying a message or even just escaping shame. The idea of losing face personal and family, makes suicide more viable an option. The shame that comes with losing face and being diagnosed as mentally ill has a strong cultural basis for suicide.
Before your talk do consider these suggestions
- Pick a time and place when you have the best chance of getting your child’s attention
Every day picking and sending your child to school and their other social activities it is great time. Otherwise take one on one walks with your children weekly, in a safe place outside the home, they may cry however the home can trigger all forms of emotional states so you need to create a safe space for this form of emotional discussion. Never in a restaurant. Not in a church or temple where their friends may see them with you.
2. Prepare for an emotional discussion
Talk about something personal and also something philosophical about life in general. This is not the time for problem solving the pain or reducing suicide ideation in the world or for an emotional shutdown that you may prefer. Prepare them for an emotive talk on a regular weekly or fortnightly, so they know it’s an important talk. They are also prepared for it and may look forward to it and be ready to open their hearts to an outpouring.
Read up about your children’s lives or ask them to tell you the social issues in school. Listen first and always, never talk first apart from opening the space for being there for them and telling them you are facilitating and exploring the challenges with you not their teacher or expert.
3. Yes you can cry
Yes you can say — “I don’t know what to say”.
Yes you can talk about how you are afraid to lose your child and want to protect them.
But please don’t ever make it about you. If you are the one overly emotional and talking too much. Please stop. Take a breathe and watch your own triggers. You do not have to be a master of your emotions. You do however need to be a role model for how to cope with painful emotions like loss and death and anxiety and depressive thoughts. And role models model best when they deal with challenges live.
You walk the talk.
By allowing your child to see how you cry or get angry and deal with painful emotions — you show your child that emotions can be discussed and managed and that they have that safe space with you. You take on another role. Not parent-manager, not fun parent, but also parent-being a human-parent.
Additional Tips from Child Center NYU
· When speaking with a tween, you may want to briefly share your own emotional reaction and then shift to helping your child label his or her own reaction, “I am really sad that Jonathan committed suicide. It is terrible that some kids feel so sad and helpless. I imagine that you might be feeling pretty sad and confused.”
· When speaking with older adolescents, you want to acknowledge the complexity of your own emotional reactions balanced with attending to your teen’s emotional needs. For example, “I am devastated that Kayla committed suicide. I get so sad and angry when I hear about the death of a young person, it seems so unfair. I bet this is really hard for you too.”
4. Ask for your child’s response
“What do you think about suicide?”
“Is it something that any of your friends talk about?”
“Have you ever thought about it?”
“What about your friends?”
We need to hear their processing and mental models so we can understand their meaning-making. Their generation has almost been normalized and de-sensitized them to mass deaths which is far from ideal. Death becomes too common. Rather than letting them shut-down emotionally as a means to cope, ask them to process the pain. Difficult, yes, however necessary. For both them and you.
5. Mindfully listen to what your child has to say
Never interrupt their flow.
Need to interrupt? This is the crucial time to practice compassion and patience in yourself. Take a deep breath. This is not a brain storming and not a problem solving session, we can walk out raw emotionally and with no answers. It doesn’t look bad on you like it would at work or an everyday conversation. If you hear something that worries you, be honest about that too. “What you’re telling me has really gotten my attention and I need to think about it some more. Let’s talk about this again, okay?”
6. Don’t overreact if you hear that your child considered suicide themselves
Life can be challenging and people consider suicide often as an easy way out. My suggestion is not to talk directly about suicide. Rather start building your children’s resilience and asking them where and with whom they find social support. Work on supporting their emotions and less on solving their thoughts.
Thoughts and emotions come and go. They need to be managed skillfully. Unsure of such discussions yourself and unable to assess the situation? Go ask the school counselor or church pastor — someone who has done this countless of times and also find some online materials on Social Emotional Learning and Resilience.
If you feel that seeing a counselor is necessary — talk with your child about that. Respect their desire for privacy if they want to see the counselor without you. Your children are also wise humans and they have that inner knowing which we need to encourage- not shut down.
Additional Tips from Child Study Center NYU
Use phrases like “I want you to know that no matter how difficult or hopeless a situation might seem there are always options. You can always talk with me, and together, we can figure out what those other options are.”
You can also help your child identify other people who she can confide in, such as trusted family members, school counselors or staff, mental health or medical professionals, or spiritual advisors.
7. How long do they need to grieve?
Recovering from a death depends on how close the person is to the child and how the child processes the meaning of the death in their own life. Also how often they have to encounter triggers that remind them of the person. Most people take at least 3 months to grief. Remember this is not a prescriptive so don’t force the healing. However if your child is mourning for longer than 3 months, it would be good to seek professional advice. They can be sad however if they are obsessive and can’t move on in their own lives, we need to help them.
Physical movement. Watching comedies. Nature. Out of their head and into the world of the body will make them more aware of living in the now rather than in the sad past.
I wrote this as a response to my own challenges. For those who have had such life situations do contribute to this discussion. A little gentle note is to keep this conversation focused on the post suicide coping rather than suicidal thoughts and managing those.
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