Q One of my son’s friends recently died by suicide and although he wasn’t in his immediate circle of friends, they spent time together through sport. Although my son seems to be coping as well as can be expected, I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to support him and his friends. What can I do for him?
A young person’s first experience of death is often not death by suicide. Any death is terribly sad and leaves a sense of loss in our lives. However, death by suicide can leave us totally confused and young people may experience significant difficulty in making sense of their friend’s death. Often suicide happens without obvious warning signs. When a young person is confronted by another young person’s death, even if they were not close to the young person who died by suicide, the reactions can be quite extreme, although understandable. A young person may react with confusion and isolation, seeking independence, but very much wanting support. Reactions may include:
- a lack of interest in school or academic work
- disruptive behaviour in class
- skipping classes
- a lack of interest in activities which were meaningful to them
- chronic low mood
- preoccupation with death
- a need to find meaning through religion or spirituality
- sleeping difficulties
- expressions of feelings such as abandonment or blame.
The most important way of offering support to your son is maintaining a good relationship and letting him know you are there for him. Your son may not engage in conversation with you willingly. Don’t let that stop you from telling him you are ready to talk about his friend and how he’s feeling anytime. Often, young people open up more when they are not in a direct face to face conversation. So every now and then, when you are driving, or doing an activity together, you might check in with him again.
Don’t take your son’s silence as a sign he is ok – if you notice other behaviour changes, keep spending time with him. Remind him of your support by finding ways to spend time together – going to sporting events, movies, shopping, driving him to school and so on. Keep your focus on your relationship so he knows you are there if he needs you.
If your son does open up, try not to say things like “It’ll be ok” or “You’ll feel better in time” – he may feel you are missing the point even if this is true. Stay calm if your son becomes angry with you – reassure him that you are ready to talk when he is and keep trying.
Be ready to answer some questions like “Why did he do it?” or statements such as “If only I knew” or “How did I miss the signs?” You can talk to him about the fact that we never really know but many people who have mental health issues hide it well and even professionals can miss signs.
Ask your son what he needs from you to help him through this. He may also like to acknowledge his friend’s death in a symbolic way. Young people are pretty creative about ways to do this. Spending time with his friends will also allow your son to be around people who “understand” – not that parents don’t understand, but his friends are his peers and they knew their friend better than his parents did.
For additional support, please consider: