By the staff at Lost & Found Grief Center
One in ten children in Missouri will lose a parent or a sibling by the time they turn 18. When children experience a significant loss, their grief shapes who they are and who they become.
Grief is complex across the lifespan, but for children, experiencing a loss early in life can negatively affect development, academic achievement, relationships and mental health. Most concerning, a childhood bereavement experience increases the risk of early death. These negative impacts only become more complex when a child experiences a traumatic or stigmatized death, such as from suicide, homicide or drug overdose.
In the United States, 467,000 children lost a parent to suicide between 2016 and 2020.
How does parental suicide impact a child?
When a child experiences the death of a parent by suicide, they often experience traumatic grieving. This type of grief builds upon regular feelings of loss and can include emotions like anger, fear, guilt and loneliness that may not ease over time.
The way a child reacts to death depends on many factors — including their age, level of development, previous life experience and their family environment. It is common for children to have a wide range of emotions when someone close to them dies. When it comes to a traumatic loss, like suicide, these emotions and behaviors can include:
- Changes in sleeping pattern or appetite
- Stomachaches or headaches
- Feeling sad, anxious or angry
- Social isolation or avoiding talking about the person who died
- Frequent thoughts about death or the person who died
- Nightmares or other intrusive memories about the death
- Self-blame for the death
- Decreased concentration or a drop in grades
- Fear about safety for themselves and others
Certain experiences can trigger these behaviors in children who have lost a parent to suicide. These can include:
- Reminders of the event, such as location, people who were there, smells, or sounds.
- Reminders of the loss, such as special objects, photos, memories or special places.
- Reminders that life has changed, such as moving houses or schools or doing a task with someone else that they used to share with the parent who died.
The loss of a parent by suicide can also put a child at greater risk of dying by suicide later in life.
Helping children grieve in a healthy way
After a traumatic loss, children may have a hard time processing, understanding or discussing the event. The best way adults can support bereaved children is by ensuring they feel safe and comfortable asking questions or talking about the death, and by responding in an honest, age-appropriate manner.
Children may feel like they are somehow to blame for the death of a parent. It is important to help them understand their parent’s actions are not their fault. When suicide happens, it is often the result of a serious mental health occurrence. It is okay to tell a child their parent was ill and that no one is to blame for an illness.
Peer and professional support are also tools adults can use to guide children through the grieving process. In the Ozarks, Lost & Found Grief Center supports individuals and families who have experienced loss. They strive to improve lives in our community by providing help, hope, and healing through professional grief support services.
The importance of suicide prevention
When we see the impact a parent’s suicide can have on a child, we have to remember the other people who also feel the weight of that loss. The effects of a suicide death ricochet further than we may think.
Death by suicide is a complex event that is often the result of a mental health crisis. If we know someone is experiencing a mental health occurrence, there are discussions we can have to help prevent a crisis, and there are signs we can watch for that someone may be nearing a crisis. These and other resources about mental health and suicide can be found on MentalHealth417.com.
In Greene County, men over age 45, many of whom may be fathers, have the highest suicide mortality rate. The “Hey man, you good?” men’s mental health campaign encourages this group to discuss mental health with their peers in the hopes of building a network of support and connection that can help prevent a mental health crisis.
These prevention methods can help engage someone before they reach crisis or help someone who may be considering suicide know who they can reach out to for support. In turn, they can be tools to work toward preventing the effects of a traumatic loss, especially for children.
Children’s Grief Awareness Month
Mental health, childhood bereavement and death by suicide are topics we may find difficult to talk about. Stigma surrounds each topic, which makes them easier to avoid. But we must face these difficult events and topics head-on to make real change.
November is Children’s Grief Awareness Month. If you have a child in your life who has experienced a death, you can visit Lost & Found Grief Center for resources and connections to support. Especially as the holidays approach, it is vital to remember no one should grieve alone.
For more information and resources about childhood bereavement, visit Judi’s House/JAG Institute for grieving children and families.
About the Author
With over 20 years of experience in providing help, hope, and healing through professional grief support services, Lost & Found Grief Center provides a full range of grief support for ages four and older. As a comprehensive grief center, we strive to use our grief expertise to support those who are grieving and educate the community on how they can support those around them who have experienced the death of a loved one. Lost & Found Grief Center believes no one should grieve alone. We offer our therapeutic grief support groups at no cost to those who attend. This is possible because of our generous donors and community who recognize the difficult work of grief.