By Melodie Veldhuizen
The unexpected death of a child of any age confronts a parent with unique challenges that can draw out and intensify the mourning process. This article focuses on the emotions felt by parents and guidelines for handling the challenges. Many of the emotions and ways of handling them also apply to parents who lost children in other ways.
- Emotions experienced by parents
All these emotions are normal.
The physical experience includes confusion, bouts of crying, disorientation, tiredness, restlessness, wandering about and sleeplessness. The emotional experience is intense heartbreak, temporary loss of reality contact and strange behaviour, as well as depression, sometimes alternated by euphoric behaviour. Religious experiences alternate from feeling close to God, dullness, anger and aggression towards God and finding it difficult to pray. You wonder why He allowed it and question your own religious convictions, especially if it does not bring acceptance. You may even feel that God has forsaken or betrayed you. You wonder if you will ever see your child again.
Overwhelming pain and heartbreak. All dreams for your child come to an end and everything remains unfinished. Initially there is the intense longing to see her one last time, and after that the unrelenting, lingering longing because the absence is dragging on and on.
Shame. Because of the stigma attached to suicide, parents often feel ashamed to talk about it. Anger. Towards your deceased child (you feel betrayed because she did not trust you enough to talk to you about her pain and what it was that upset her); towards those who in your opinion did not support your child; towards the person or circumstances that caused it. You’re just angry at the whole world.
Feelings of guilt, remorse, self-reproach because you feel you should have noticed he signs and been there to prevent it. You feel like a failure because you feel you failed your child in all respects. Wanting to protect one’s child and only wanting the best for him is the essence of parenthood.
Endless unanswered questions about your child’s reasons for doing it. This is especially the case when the child did not even leave a letter. In all other situations parents ask their children “Why did you do it?” on the assumption that if you knew the reason, you can prevent similar action. In this case the question remains unanswered and you feel powerless.
Excessive fear that one of your oher children or a friend will also commit suicide. You are also anxious about their general safety and that they will leave home and not come back.
Depression of different degrees and intensity that appear in many different forms that dominate the spirit and your actions.
Talk about it. People are going to question you. Keep control of the situation by deciding beforehand what and how much you are going to say to whom. Tell the nosy ones the minimum. But sharing your feelings with those you know really care could have therapeutic value and help you to process the pain and longing. Talk about your grief and turmoil, but also about the beautiful memories of your child. Your child was part of your family and it will always be so and may never be a forbidden subject.
Accept help and support or ask for help when necessary. People like to help but don’t always know how. Help them by asking for help when necessary, but you may courteously decline help offered. Talking about it makes people feel free to offer help and it also helps those who were close to your child to want to share their memories.
Farewell rituals. If possible, stay with her for a while, talk about everything that comes to mind at that moment and say goodbye. At the funeral or consolation service hand out small papers or cards and pens so that everybody can write a message about or for you. It is healing to read them later.
Mourn. How you mourn, depends on your personality. Respect each member of the family’s unique way of mourning. One can think or say: Because you are so emotional, I’ll show nothing. We cannot both keep on crying. The other could say: Exactly because you are so unfeeling (which, of course, is not true), I have to keep on mourning. Be gentle with each other. A marriage or family can disintegrate if families do not respect and understand each other’s divergent experience of pain and manner of mourning, Walk the road to healing together as a family. Do not allow these events to disintegrate family ties.
Your other children. Do not focus on your deceased child only. Your other children, who are often referred to as “the forgotten mourners”, can feel loneliness in their sadness and need the wholesome love of you as a parent now more than ever. They often don’t know how to talk about their grief but don’t want to upset you as the parents any further. Assure them that they were not the cause of their brother’s or sister’s death and that you still love them very much. Take care that your fear of a repeat does not result in your stifling the other children by overprotecting them. Feelings of guilt, based on the criteria by which you judge yourself, come away from the misperception that you were not a good parent. Perhaps you feel that you did not give your child enough attention or love, or you blame yourself that you were not there on time to prevent the deed. There were things that you still wanted to say or do. You must work purposefully on focusing on the positive criteria that you did meet.
Returning to normality. Your child would probably have wanted you to carry on with your lives as usual, but it is as if everything in your immediate intimate family circle has come to a stop while life carries on as usual outside. Use this quiet for reflection and processing. Try not to resume work commitments or even study or school commitments too soon. Do not use work as an escape. Resume essential commitments gradually as soon as you feel ready. Less essential activities can be phased in gradually. Eventually, in spite of the void, there will come a day that your lives will return to what it was before.
Keep her memory alive
- Make a scrapbook of all the notes received at the consolation service and also of the funeral letter. Some of her own letters or poems and photos that tell her life’s story can also be pasted in this scrapbook.
- Fill a commemoration chest with things that were important to her, for instance her personal diary, certificates and awards she received, books, CDs and videos, ornaments, one or two favourite pieces of clothing, school blazer and the scrapbook.
- Make a commemoration nook with photos and a fragrant candle, and perhaps a cross.
- Make a quilt or teddybear from the clothes you keep.
- Plant her favourite flower, a shrub or a special tree in a focus point in the garden. Plants are living memories and it is therapeutic to take care of them. Put a bench here where every member of the family can cherish their memories on their own or together as a family.
- Listen to her favourite music.
- Visit favourite hangouts you as a family liked to visit and make some of her favourite dishes, even if it brings sad memories.
- Keep a diary or write a letter in which you talk to her and pour out your heart.
Give your pain sense and meaning. If no sense and meaning come forth out of your child’s death, her death was meaningless. The most meaningful use of hurt is to make it your calling. Try to identify the decisive factor in your child’s suicide. If it was the result of someone bullying her, become a campaigner for the victims of bullying. If it was depression, give motivation talks at schools to encourage children to talk about their feelings. If there is no support group in your area for parents who lost children, start one. Support others who can learn from your experience. In this way you will honour your child’s memory.
Counselling. If you as a family or individual family members feel that you are not making progress with the healing process, consider counselling or therapy. A therapist of your choice could probably help to overcome blockages that hampered the healing process. You could also join a support group such as Compassionate Friends.
Living with the void left by your child’s death, does not implicate acceptance, abandonment or forgetting, but through God’s mercy it could be possible to live with it without rebellion and anger. One can organise one’s life again in such a way that it is meaningful and happy in spite of the void. (Henk Gous)
Focus on the Family. https://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/surviving-a-childs-suicide/
Pyramid Healthcare. https://www.pyramidhealthcarepa.com/how-to-cope-if-your-child-has-attempted-suicide/
Suicide Prevention Council. https://www.sprc.org/sites/default/files/resource-program/After_an_attempt_emotional_impact_of_a_suicide_attempt_on_families.pdf
The Compassionate Friends. https://www.compassionatefriends.org/surviving-childs-suicide/
The Compassionate Friends. https://www.compassionatefriends.org/find-support/family-support/
Gous, Henk. 2005. Om die ondraaglike te dra. Vereeniging. CUM.