Losing a loved one is hard, and losing someone to suicide can be even more challenging. Suicide is often stigmatized by society, and mourners must wrestle with questions they’ll likely never know the answer to. These questions can be especially difficult for teenagers, who are already in the process of defining their own identities and understanding of the world.
Unfortunately, suicide is becoming more and more common. In 2021, almost 50,000 people died from suicide, and 1.7 million adults attempted suicide. Teenagers are especially susceptible to suicide – about 1 out of every 10 high school students has attempted suicide and around 20% of high school students have contemplated suicide. The problem continues to grow, which is why it’s so important to support your teen when they lose someone – whether a family member, a friend, or a classmate – to suicide.
Losing someone they love to suicide can shake a teenager’s beliefs and leave them confused and torn. They may act out, withdraw from you or their friends, or become depressed. Going to the funeral of the person who died can be a great place to start, but your teen needs care and support throughout the days, months, and even years to come. You may not know how to help them, especially if you are also grieving, so here are five tips for how you can support your teenager during this difficult time.
Create a safe space
The suicide of a loved one can cause mourners to feel many different emotions – sadness, guilt, anger, fear, or even relief if the person was suffering. Both you and your teenager need to know that there is no right way to feel when grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. Let your teenager know they can talk to you about their emotions without fear of judgment.
A great way to help your teenager feel comfortable exploring their grief with you is by asking them how you can support them. Don’t assume that your teenager needs the same things you do. Your teenager may already know how you can support them while they’re grieving but may not know how to ask for it. Maybe they want to sit and talk, read and discuss a book about grief, or go out and enjoy an activity with you to take their mind off their grief. By asking them how you can help them – and then following through – you can open doors of communication and create a safe space for them to ask questions, explore their grief, and cope in a healthy way.
As you talk with your teenager, don’t avoid the topic of suicide. Suicide carries a lot of stigma, and talking about suicide openly and gently will help your teenager feel safe enough to ask you the questions that are likely already on their mind. However, do avoid talking about graphic details of the suicide or placing blame on anyone for the suicide; instead, focus on positive conversations with your teenager about how you can support each other now.
When your teenager does open up to you, stop and listen. Your first instinct may be to offer suggestions, fix problems, or offer encouragement, but you must first take time to listen and understand your teenager. Listen without judgment, asking questions when appropriate. Your teenager may struggle with feelings you disagree with – like blaming themselves for their loved one’s death or questioning their beliefs – but they don’t need a lecture. Instead, they need you to listen, understand, and empathize with them.
Some teenagers may withdraw or avoid the topic of death, grief, or suicide completely. You can listen to them by respecting their wishes while leaving the door for conversation open. You could ask them questions gently, check in with them, and be available when they’re ready to open up. Many teenagers want to grieve with their friends, especially if the person who died was one of their peers. You may feel left out, but as long as your teenager gets support from somewhere, respecting their choice is a good idea.
Keep your routine – but be flexible
The suicide of a loved one can shake mourners to their core. Even if your teenager didn’t know the person who died by suicide very well, their world might feel like it’s crumbling around them. Sticking to their usual routine can help them find a sense of normalcy during a time of upheaval. In addition, it may be easier for teens to practice self-care when sticking to their usual routine.
But even as you try to keep your routine going, allow for flexibility. Some days, your teenager may not feel up to going to basketball practice or choir rehearsal. They may need to take a mental health day off from school or extracurricular activities. Alternatively, your teenager may want to completely change their routine – and that’s okay, too. Listen to their needs and help them develop a routine that will fit their needs as they begin their grief journey.
Teenagers are still exploring what grieving a loss looks like, and by including them in your own grieving process, you can show them what healthy grieving looks like. You may be tempted to bottle up your emotions and stay strong for them, but don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Your teenager will likely appreciate your openness about your emotions and feel safer expressing their own.
You can also involve your teenager by letting them come up with ideas for honoring the memory of the person who died. For example, if your teen likes to paint, draw, or write, they may want to make something special to be displayed or read at the funeral. If your teen was on a team or in a club with the person who died, they could host a special meeting for everyone to share stories and grieve together. If your teenager is interested, allow them to come up with an idea to remember the person who died and help them make it a reality.
Seek outside support
Grief, especially from suicide loss, can be difficult for teens to navigate on their own. Plus, the suicide of a fellow teenager can lead to copycat suicides. While these aren’t extremely common, suicides of close friends, deaths of people the teen identifies with, or suicides that get a lot of media attention can lead to clusters of similar suicides. If you notice that your teen is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other risk factors, you may want to consider helping your teen sign up for professional support. Even if your teenager doesn’t seem to be at risk and just needs extra support, you can talk to them about the possibility of meeting with a grief support therapist.
You can also explore grief support groups in your area. Grief support groups can help your teen feel less alone since they will hear about others’ experiences. However, if your teen begins attending a grief support group, check with them about their experience. Grief support groups are all different, and instead of being comforted, your teenager may feel overwhelmed by hearing everyone’s stories.
During this difficult time, it’s important for your teen to know you are there to support them. As you grieve together, help them feel safe and comfortable asking questions. Their grief and reaction to the suicide may look different than yours, and that’s okay. Accept their feelings without judgment and let them know you’re there to walk alongside them and support them, no matter what.