What parental suicide means for children

By Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers
Experts say the death of a parent, especially by suicide, can have a profound affect on children, and that professional intervention is always important. (Original National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Helen Miller. Photo illustration by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity.)

Experts say the death of a parent, especially by suicide, can have a profound affect on children, and that professional intervention is always important. (Original National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Helen Miller. Photo illustration by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity.)

Suicide destroys lives, not just in the physical sense, but in the psychological sense, in the emotional sense. It can destroy futures and families and the littlest members are especially vulnerable.

After a parent’s suicide, or any parental death, a child’s whole world collapses, said Mary Cima, a licensed clinical social worker at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, who specializes in children and adolescents. Cima actually lost her own father, a civilian in Army intelligence, to wounds he received in Vietnam when she was only 12. A  2010 Johns Hopkins study found that children of parents who die by suicide are three times as likely as children with living parents to commit suicide themselves. They’re also at higher risk for depression and committing violent crimes.

Fortunately, the same Johns Hopkins study found that many of these risk factors could be modified, especially if the child received professional help in the immediate aftermath of the suicide. That help is critical, Cima said.

“The death of any parent unexpectedly is an absolute trauma to a child. They consider that a life-threatening event. … The family is basically the core of their existence, certainly before high school. The death of one of the parents who are the people who maintain their security, their safety, their well-being, they perceive as a threat to their well-being. This is an individual who has provided at least 50 percent of their safety and security and well-being and when that person dies, they experience it as an event that has undermined their personal security.”

Even if children seem like they’re doing OK, she continued, they probably aren’t.

“The goal of any child who has lost a parent is to ensure the well-being of the remaining parent,” Cima said. “They will avoid, as much as possible, sharing anything that is sad for that parent. They’re so overly concerned about distressing the surviving parent that they will truly do everything they can to hide any sort of grief response. … They think they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Many, many times surviving parents do not recognize the grief of the child. … That’s why I think it’s really important that you just take them (to counseling).

“I don’t think that any child who has had a parent commit suicide should ever be expected to recover well without some sort of professional intervention. That child is thinking along the lines of, ‘I wasn’t good enough for him. I wasn’t enough to keep him alive. Did he or she actually love me? Why wasn’t I good enough?’”

“I always worry that kids will on some level think that their parent chose to leave them, that they weren’t loveable, they weren’t good enough,” agreed Kim Ruocco, the chief external relations officer for suicide prevention and postvention at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and a suicide survivor herself with a masters in social work. It’s incredibly easy for children to make that sort of leap and believe they’re responsible for a parent’s death, both experts agreed.

In fact, because of initial, bad advice the family received from trauma specialists, Ruocco’s sister told her 8- and 10-year-old sons that their father had died in an accident when he had really killed himself, leading Ruocco’s older son to believe he was responsible. The child had added extra salt to nachos and thought maybe his father had a heart attack as a result.

“It’s never too late to tell the truth, but it’s incredibly important when it comes to suicide loss and children,” Ruocco said, explaining she immediately told them what happened. “It’s a responsibility to talk about it honestly because this is now part of the family history. Those children need to know why that parent died, what we could have done differently and how they can protect themselves going forward.”

Cima cautioned that doesn’t mean children need or should receive whole truth all at once, however, and parents should decide what to tell them based on their ages and understanding levels. Also, she said, “the one thing that’s important, just across the board when children ask any kind of question, is to not answer more than they’ve asked.”

Separation anxiety is common after a parent’s death, and if children start acting out and lying or stealing or risk taking, it’s almost always a sign that they’re depressed, Cima said. This is true even if it’s been six months or a year after the suicide. “When a kid starts to act bad, they are acting the feeling that they’re having internally.” (Also read “Common warning signs of kids in distress” for additional symptoms of children in trouble.)

They may also start to see their deceased parents. It’s a phenomenon called searching and it’s a frequent occurrence for both adults and children after a loved one dies, but children have a hard time understanding that the image isn’t real, that their parents haven’t actually returned.

“It’s a symptom of grief,” noted Cima. “It’s probably more a symptom of traumatic grief.”

Editor’s note: For more information about surviving suicide, read, “The ones they left behind.” Both TAPS and the Army’s Survivor Outreach Services can connect families with counselors.

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