If your teen has lost someone close to them to suicide* and is struggling with suicide grief, you can play a crucial role in supporting them as they navigate their emotions. Your support will be especially important if they have any long-term mental health issues related to surviving suicide loss.
What Is Suicide Grief?
Suicide grief involves experiencing intense emotions that can be complicated and long-lasting because of how the person died: by taking their own life.
As defined in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, grief can be broken down into three stages.
- Acute grief: This stage includes the shock and intense emotions that occur immediately after a death such as a loss by suicide.
- Integrated grief: After a few months and in most circumstances, individuals move into this stage where they can look at their grief with more perspective, think of their lost friend or family member with more even emotions, and reintegrate into their daily lives.
- Complicated grief: In this stage, individuals — especially people who lose a loved one to suicide — can feel “stuck” in their feelings of intense grief and struggle to return to daily life.
The Emotions of Suicide Grief
Your teen can feel a lot of different emotions of grief after suicide, said Ryan Price, a licensed professional counselor and master addiction counselor at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy program in Oregon.
Price outlined the following as some of the most common emotions your child may experience:
- Anger: Teens may feel angry that someone close to them died by suicide as well as traumatized or hurt by what happened. As Harvard Medical School shared in an article, the act itself could seem like an assault on or even a rejection of the person left behind.
- Shame: Price pointed out that many people avoid talking about the emotions of suicide grief or about the person who died by suicide. He said this act of keeping it a secret can create shame. According to the previously mentioned Harvard Medical School article, the shame can last for years if it’s not discussed honestly and openly.
- Regret: Teenagers may wish they’d done something differently before losing their friend or family member, Price said. As Harvard Medical School shared in its article, suicide survivors who ask “what if” questions tend to significantly overestimate their ability to have affected the outcome.
Long-Term Issues of Suicide Loss
There are three common long-term mental health issues that Price sees among his adolescent clients who are surviving suicide loss.
Suicide survivor’s guilt
“Many teens who have suicide guilt may feel guilty because they don’t feel like they should have been the ones who survived,” Price said. “They sometimes feel guilt after suicide because they wonder, ‘What if the roles were switched?’ Your teen might question the value of their own life and have a sense of shame because they don’t feel that their own life is ‘valuable’ enough to survive whatever their lost one experienced.”
Suicide survivors and PTSD
When an individual dies from suicide, it triggers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-type symptoms similar to those experienced when someone dies from a sudden, unexpected, and often violent death such as a homicide, explained grief therapist and clinical psychologist John R. Jordan in the Frontiers in Psychology journal. Those symptoms include avoiding triggering reminders of the death.
Suicide survivor stigma
“With suicide survivor stigma, there’s a social experience that’s very common where there’s a lot of sympathy and pity when a teen loses someone to suicide,” Price said. “There’s also a lot of awkwardness among their peer group with people not knowing how to interact with someone who has lost someone to suicide.”
Price added, “Initially, there can be a huge outpouring of support, but after a few months, everyone else’s life goes back to normal. But for the teen, their life doesn’t go back to normal — it’s forever changed. And so there are a lot of external thoughts and beliefs about what that teen’s life should be and should look like, but it’s different for every individual.”
According to Price, that situation creates a lack of attunement — an inability for others to relate to those surviving suicide loss in an empathetic way — and a teen then experiences a social or familial stigma.
How To Help a Teen Cope With Suicidal Death
Whether your child is going through losing a friend to suicide or losing a family member or other person close to them to suicide, there are approaches you can use for how to help a teen cope with suicidal death.
Let them grieve in their own way
“Grief doesn’t always look like the way we think grief should look,” Price said. “It often shows up in anything from anger to humor to denial — all different ways that we don’t typically think of as grieving symptoms.”
Price said you should let your teenager experience grief in whatever way they need to express that grief. He used the example of a teen coping with the suicide of a brother or sister.
“How a parent grieves the loss of their child will be very different from how a teen grieves the loss of their sibling,” Price said. “Parents need to remember that how they as parents process grief isn’t necessarily how their teen is dealing with suicide.”
Don’t rush the grieving process
Price said there’s no “right” schedule for grief, so it’s important you let your teenager mourn at their own pace.
“Allow your teen to have their own unique experience and write their own grief story,” Price said. “Most people recover from the severe effects of loss within a year, but they’ll carry that loss with them for much longer and, depending on the relationship, potentially for the rest of their lives. It’s therefore helpful to take a longer-term perspective on grief.”
Listen without judgment
When parents wonder what to say when someone has taken their own life, they often go the other route — not talking about it. Yet allowing your teen to say what they need to say is key for healing. Price said to keep in mind that you won’t approach the situation from the same perspective.
“You’re coming at it from two different relationships to the individual who passed from suicide,” he said. “Recognizing that can make a lot of difference in what that grief process looks like.”
He said it’s important to listen, talk, and normalize conversations about the lost loved one rather than avoid the subject because of fear of causing your child pain or worsening the grief process.
“My experience has shown that the majority of teens want to talk about it,” Price said. “Normalize talking about it — it’s a very helpful part of the grieving process as your teen makes meaning out of the relationship that was lost and as they work through their grief.”
Find suicide survivor support groups
“Support groups can be great,” said Price, but he warned that it’s important to talk to your teen about their experiences with such groups. “Your child might feel bombarded with all these different types of support that may not always feel like what they need at that moment.”
He said as long as you keep an open line of dialogue with your teen, there are many benefits to them joining a suicide survivor support group. You can find such groups through nonprofit organizations like SAVE and the Alliance of Hope.
Reach out for professional help for suicide grief
When it comes to getting professional help after someone takes their own life, it can start with you.
“I would encourage any parent whose teen has lost someone through suicide to reach out for suicide grief counseling themselves,” Price said. “That can go a long way to normalize grief counseling for suicide for your child. If Mom or Dad attends therapy, it’s not as big of a jump if your child asks for that support themselves.”
Price said you should certainly reach out to a mental health professional for your teenager if they’re exhibiting any risky behaviors or struggling emotionally while trying to work through their suicide grief. Seek help if they’re:
- Using drugs, alcohol, or other high-risk coping strategies.
- Dealing with depression that’s lasted for several months.
- Experiencing anxiety or depression that’s interfering with their day-to-day functioning.
- Having suicidal thoughts.
Suicide Grief Wrapup
As a parent, you might feel helpless watching your child deal with loss by suicide, as they’re going to experience strong emotions that can affect their day-to-day lives. But with the right approach and the support of a mental health professional if needed, your teen can navigate suicide grief in a healthy way.
*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 ─ the Crisis Text Line ─ from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.
Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!