Adolescence is a complex stage of life encompassing many changes and growth, both physically and psychologically. This is a time when young people begin to develop a sense of personal identity which involves questioning who they are, their values and their goals for the future. Supporting adolescents bereaved by suicide can be particularly difficult.
Supporting adolescents: Common experiences after a suicide
The experience of losing a family member or friend to suicide can be particularly difficult during teenage years. It is important to be aware of any cues that they are not coping, or signs of risky behaviour. While a young person may be yearning for independence, after a suicide they may also experience a conflicting need for support from those close to them.
These experiences of confusion and isolation can manifest in a number of behaviours such as:
- 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.
Anger is a normal reaction to grief, and an expression of feelings or abandonment or blame. Be willing to listen and let the teenager know that these are normal feelings.
Supporting adolescents that may be engaging in risk-taking behaviour:
- drug and alcohol consumption
- unprotected sexual intercourse
- suicidal behaviour.
If you notice any of these behaviours it is important to seek support for both yourself and the adolescent.
Take all cues and threats of self-harm or suicide seriously and ask the adolescent directly about whether they are considering suicide. It is a myth that talking about suicide will put the idea in their heads, and most adolescents experience a sense of relief in being able to talk about these difficult feelings.
Talking to young people about suicide
It is important to open up the lines of communication so that the adolescent can talk about how they are feeling about the suicide.
Here are some tips to help you talk to an adolescent about a death by suicide:
- Think about spaces or places where you and the young person feel most comfortable talking. Some people find it helpful to talk while going for a drive or a walk.
- Listen without judgment.
- Be honest and upfront about the nature of the death. Adolescents generally have a good idea about what suicide means as it is frequently mentioned in music, on TV and in schools.
- Be patient and willing to talk to the young person when they are ready.
- Avoid simplistic sayings such as “you’ll be fine” and “cheer up,” as these can be hurtful for the adolescent and interfere with their grieving process.
- Avoid criticising the adolescent.
- Prepare them for other people’s reactions at school.
Finding someone to talk to after the death
It is important that the young person finds someone who they trust and can talk to, whether it is a family friend, sporting coach, GP or teacher.
You may want to discuss arranging some counselling face-to-face with either the school counsellor, a community-based service or local headspace service.
The funeral/memorial service
The viewing and funeral service provides an opportunity for the young person to say goodbye and express their grief.
It is important for the adolescent to feel like they are involved at a level with which they feel comfortable. This could mean inviting the adolescent to contribute to the ceremony by choosing a favourite song to be played at the service or a reading/poem for the eulogy. It may mean simply being present at the funeral.
What young people need to know about the grieving process
It may be helpful to remind the young person of the following as they move through the grief process:
- It’s okay to cry, and feel angry and/or depressed.
- It’s important to talk to someone they trust, particularly if they’re feeling overwhelmed.
- They are not responsible for the death.
- Having a laugh or having fun is okay.
- It’s okay to move on and enjoy life.
Dealing with the school after a suicide bereavement
It is important to connect with the school so that teachers can be prepared and provide a supportive environment for the adolescent.
Here are some suggestions about how to engage the school:
- Don’t assume the school teachers or counsellors know what has happened or of your adolescent’s connection with the person who died.
- Contact the school and advise them of the death and circumstances.
- Talk to the school teacher and school counsellor when the adolescent returns to school.
- Inform the school of any anniversary dates and times of extra stress.
Suicide within the school community
All government schools are required to have an emergency management plan in place to implement if there has been a suicide by a student or staff member of the school. For further information please refer to the Department of Education in your state.