Suicide is frequently a sudden, surprising and shocking death that leaves family members reeling in disbelief and heartache. Suicide is akin to lobbing an explosive into the middle of the family. There is enormous collateral damage.
For children, the death of a parent is a traumatic event, which is especially intensified for young children. However, when the death is a suicide, the trauma is heightened even more.
Suicide is the hardest death to accept. There are so many unanswered questions.
Arguably, suicide is the hardest death to accept. There are so many unanswered questions.
Young children do not readily understand the concept of suicide. They might ask, "What is suicide?" Once the child has some grasp on the meaning of suicide, there will be the inevitable "why?" question that wracks every survivor, young and old, of a suicidal loss.
Suicide opens Pandora's Box. Children want to understand why their parent made that choice and why their parent did not choose to stay with them. Did I do something to make this happen? Is it my fault? Didn't Daddy love me enough to want to stay? If I had loved her more, would Mom have stayed?
It's crucial for children to be given an age-appropriate answer, i.e., the younger the child means the simpler the response with fewer details, understanding of their parent's death so that they can begin to make sense of this terrifying loss and, over time, integrate this seminal event into their psyche.
Understanding comes with the knowledge that suicide is predicated on severe pain of all kinds. When we are in serious pain, we will do anything to minimize or eradicate the pain. Suicide is a choice, made at that moment in time, to end the agony of a life. That agony clearly has nothing to do with the child, but the pain of the parent's life. Suicide is often prompted by haywire neurochemicals, mental illness, profound physical pain, substance abuse and/or trauma. In other words, the parent was under extreme duress, which influenced their thinking and their actions.
Suicide is a mental health issue. With children, it can be helpful to use the idea of sickness because children readily understand this.
Because suicide is both traumatic and considered complicated grief, there is the possibility that the child could become emotionally frozen... As a result, their development stalls and they can have increased difficulties socially and at school, which can set the stage for long-term repercussions.
At the funeral, the priest said my Daddy died because he was sick. My Daddy didn't have cancer. The priest said what my Daddy had was a mental illness. He said my Daddy tried very hard not to be sick, but it got the better of him. I liked that the priest said that. I didn't have to explain it to anybody.
Because suicide is both traumatic and considered complicated grief, there is the possibility that the child could become emotionally frozen, i.e., their emotions are frozen at the time of trauma like a solid block of ice with no movement and no flow. As a result, their development stalls and they can have increased difficulties socially and at school, which can set the stage for long-term repercussions.
To heal from the trauma, loss, and grief, the primary focus is to encourage the child to express their feelings. This can be done through physical activity, arts and writing projects, all things creative and, with older children, involvement in acts of service, like a walk to raise money for mental health resources.
Children of suicide are often very angry: How could you do this to me? Why did you leave me? Because of you, my life is all messed up, why aren't you here?
They have greater fears and anxiety: How can I remember my Mom better? How can I make sure I never forget my Dad? Will I be left alone?
Children of suicide show more depressive symptoms: Why am I so sad? Will I be this sad forever? When will it stop hurting? You tell me they are in a better place, I want be with them. If I kill myself too, will I see my Mommy again?
They have a pronounced fear of death: You always said I am just like my Daddy, am I going to die this way? Are you going to die too?
There can be denial: Marissa didn't want to believe it. It couldn't be true. Not her dad. She told everyone her dad died of a heart attack, but, it was actually a suicide.
The child's stability, safety and protection have evaporated... Children of suicide are trying to understand a loss that brings grown-ups to their knees. It's a very challenging path to walk, both for the children and their remaining parent.
All of these feelings make sense because the child's stability, safety and protection have evaporated. There is no terra firma. Children of suicide are trying to understand a loss that brings grown-ups to their knees. It's a very challenging path to walk, both for the children and their remaining parent or caregivers.
And not only are the children trying to understand the suicidal death of their parent, there is the additional stress, possible abandonment and rejection due to social stigma, shame and taboo around suicide:
Why is everybody acting so weird? How come nobody wants to talk about my Dad's death?
What do I tell the kids at school? Why do people look at me funny at school? Or whisper about me and my family? Some of my friends even avoid me now.
Why do I feel all ashamed and embarrassed, I didn't do anything wrong, did I?
It is not easy to lose a parent under any circumstances, but to lose a parent to suicide is incredibly difficult. Suicide by a parent leaves a very frightened and terrified child who is struggling mightily for emotional survival.
Gently encourage your children to express all of their feelings -- the good, the bad and, especially the ugly. Reassure your bereft little ones that they are not alone. Yes, this is tough. Yes, we are all sad. Yes, it's OK to laugh at a silly movie tonight and cry tomorrow. There is no perfect way, but by being open, honest and vulnerable with your children, you will navigate this slippery slope.
Above all, show the children that although we cannot control what happens, we can learn how to manage our reactions. It takes time and patience and tenderness to pick up all the pieces of a shattered heart.
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email email@example.com
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
A British study published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry looked at pairs of adult twins, both fraternal and identical, to see how genetics might influence anxiety. The researchers hypothesized that a child with an identical twin for a father would have the same amount of anxiety as their father (or his twin) if the trait is only genetic— he or she would share the same amount of DNA with either of those adults. But they found that when it came to anxiety, children had more in common with their own parents than than they did with their parent’s twin, indicating that the relationship between the parents and children was an important factor in predicting future anxiety. If you’re suffering from anxiety, seeking treatment won’t just help you but it may benefit your children in the short and long term as well.
If you have a beloved pet, you know that it’s good for your quality of life. It’s just nice to have your dog greet you when you get home from work, or your cat cuddle at your feet when you go to bed. But research shows that a pet can be helpful for your mental health too. One recent study found that pets can help lower social anxiety in children with autism, for example. Researchers at Purdue University measured reductions in stress levels for children aged five to 12 and with autism when they were exposed to companion animals including cats, dogs, and guinea pigs.
Untreated anxiety and depression can have negative effects on your physical health as well as your mental health, which is one more reason why access to psychiatric care is so important. For example, research from the University of Edinburgh released this month found that people with anxiety or depression may have a higher risk of dying from liver disease. The connection is not yet clear and more research is needed on the biological links between liver disease and psychological distress, but the findings are considered the first to find a potential link between the two.
Air pollution has already been linked to serious health problems like asthma and heart attacks, and one new study found that particulate air pollution could also be linked to our mental health. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that exposure to fine particulate matter air pollution could cause or intensify anxiety as it causes increased oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. It’s also possible that air pollution could increase anxiety by aggravating chronic health conditions.
Research released in May found that 4.3 Americans with full-time jobs — or 3.7 per cent of adult workers--experienced an anxiety disorder over the previous year. The rate was even higher for those who didn’t have full-time employment: the rate of anxiety disorders in the past 12 months was 5.6 per cent for part-time workers, 6.9 per cent for the unemployed, and 8.9 per cent for those out of the workforce. And anxiety disorders themselves can make it hard to gain or maintain adequate employment.
Nobody knows a child better than his or her parents, but even attentive parents may be missing signs of anxiety in their kids. One study done by Yahoo Parenting and Silver Hill Hospital found that some parents are in denial that their children may be suffering from anxiety or depression. The researchers found that while almost two thirds of the parents they surveyed think their teen child is suffering from anxiety or depression, and nearly half of those teens have talked to their parents about their mental-health issues, only 18 per cent of those teens have received a diagnosis. The good news is that most parents notice their children’s struggles, and many teens feel comfortable talking to their parents about their mental health. It’s important to follow through if you suspect your own child is struggling, because quality care is available and can help.
A new survey from the University of California (UC) indicates that post-secondary students are increasingly dealing with mental-health issues, including anxiety disorders. The UC survey found that incoming college students in 2014 had the lowest self-rated emotional health in the nearly 50 years of the survey’s history. Their worries include anxiety about their ability to find gainful employment after graduation, years in the future.
It’s no surprise that bullying can cause anxiety in children who experience it, but new findings indicate that it can affect mental health even into adulthood.The study also notes the effect is stronger for children who are bullied by peers. A study published this year in Lancet Psychiatry found that children bullied by their peers are at a higher risk for the development of mental-health problems in early adulthood when compared to those who are bullied or emotionally abused by an adult. The findings make it clear that bullying is a serious issue that can have long-term health effects, even when it’s among children.
Research done in the U.K. and published this year in BMJ Open found that men who self-reported abusive behaviours towards their romantic partners were three to five times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety than non-perpetrators. The findings are consistent with past research that has found that men who either have experienced or perpetrated domestic abuse are more likely to experience mental-health issues like anxiety. Studies like these show that doctors treating men for anxiety disorders would be wise to ask about domestic abuse, the researchers said.
Bruxism — more commonly known as tooth grinding — can lead to a host of dental issues, including headaches, jaw pain, loss of tooth enamel, tooth decay, and even tooth loss. And people suffering from social anxiety often experience bruxism, even if the bouts of anxiety are short term. More than 40 per cent of the study participants with a diagnosed social phobia showed moderate to severe dental wear, compared to just over one quarter of the subject without a phobia. And 43 per cent of the group with social anxiety reported experiencing bruxism while awake, compared to only three per cent of those in the control group. People who grind their teeth while awake are sometimes unaware they’re doing it at all, since it tends to be quieter than bruxism that occurs during sleep.
Are you sleeping six or eight hours? Or are you tossing and turning every night with worry? If your sleep is accompanied by respiratory problems like snoring, difficulty breathing, muscle weakness or daytime sleepiness, talk to your doctor about anxiety, says Dr. Prakash Masand, a psychiatrist and president of Global Medical Education based in New York City.
If you're constantly feeling stressed out about your work life, family life or personal life, it may be a symptom of anxiety. Experts say if your stress is long-term, it could leave you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
Not only are you stressed out, but your body also feels like it is burning out and shutting down. Masand says if you feel overworked and it is continuously getting in the way of your day-to-day functioning, it could be anxiety.
If you're constantly and unexpectedly worried, scared or frightened by something with an uncertain result, it could be a sign of anxiety, Masand says. Worrying can be reduced by observing your thoughts and feelings and learning how to take control and accept your current situation — as opposed to being fearful of it, according to PsychCentral.
If you experience stomach knots or upset stomachs that are sudden, it could be another symptom of anxiety. Masand says if your stomach difficulties are also followed by diarrhea, severe constipation, nausea or vomiting, speak to your doctor to rule out other medical conditions.
Masand says you should also be mindful of chest tightening and other symptoms related to breathing and your heart. This may include shortness of breath, sweating, nausea, pressure or fullness in the centre of the chest and/or a radiating chest, arms or back pain. If you have these associated symptoms, you need to seek emergency care immediately.
You may get a headache from time to time depending on your workflow or sleep routine, but Masand says if your headaches are common and also include weakness, dizziness or loss of sensation, talk to your doctor about getting diagnosed.
Along with chest tightness, palpitations and irregular heartbeats are also common signs of anxiety. For some, palpitations can be common — you may feel a sensation of fluttering, throbbing, flip-flopping, or pounding in your heart, according to Harvard's Family Health Guide.
Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder where people experience unexpected and repeated panic attacks from time to time, according to Anxiety BC. Masand says this psychological symptom can also include being worried, scared or irritable.
Besides blurred vision, if your sight is shaky and you have a hard time keeping your train of thought together, Masand says it may be a sign of anxiety. You may feel shakiness in your arms, legs, fingers, toes or your whole body at once.
Follow Adele Ryan McDowell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/adeleheals