Support After Suicide has recently released its fourth publication, Tell Me What Happened. The book features professional tips and advice on talking with children and young people about suicide, as well as first-person stories by program participants.
Below is an extract from the story of Mark, aged 16.
“I didn’t like the school aspect of it, people treat you a lot differently, and it’s almost condescending. You know you’re being treated differently because of what’s happened and you want to be treated normally. I would have almost preferred that nobody found out at school, which sounds stupid as they gave me heaps of support, but it’s annoying that people treat you differently. People don’t really understand either, so a lot of people can become awkward around you.”
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In conversation suicide is a party stopper. It reaches deeply into our memories and our fears for vulnerable people whom we love. So we don’t talk easily about it.
But when suicide comes close to us in our families or schools, to keep silence is the worst thing we can do. Particularly if it means not speaking about it with our children out of a desire to protect them.
This is the unanimous conclusion of staff and clients of Support after Suicide, a Jesuit Social Services program. Their little book, ‘Tell me what happened’, gives helpful advice about how to help children cope with suicide within the family. The advice is given flesh in reflections from both children and adults on their own experience.
The introductory quotation from a sixteen year old boy sums up the book’s message: ‘Even if it’s the worst thing, I’d rather know the truth…’ The difficult question of course, is how best to tell the truth to children. The answers that people here give out of their experience of failure as well as of success, are humane and comprehensive.
They say that we should tailor what we say to children to their capacity to understand. Children at different ages will have different questions, and will be satisfied with different levels of information.
They also insist that communication is a long process. It is not a case of speaking and having done with it. Children will sometimes want to speak and ask questions about the death of a parent or sibling . Later they will have other questions and have to deal with new feelings. The key to communication is to keep it open, and to be willing to listen and answer questions when appropriate. For this it is important to trust our relationship with children, and know that we can move beyond misunderstandings and periods of silence.
It is also important to be honest. This means recognising death but affirming life. We accept that our relative took their own life. But we also recognise that neither they nor we who survive them are defined by the suicide. All that was lifegiving in them is to be celebrated – the good memories and the love shared. And we, for all our insensitivity and missed opportunities in this as in all relationships, are not responsible for their death. Ultimately their life and death call us, not to withdraw from living, but to live well and fully.
The invitation contained in this book is to be responsible to other people but not to take responsibility for them. This means taking children into our confidence, encouraging and helping them to deal with the death of someone they loved, and walking with them as they work through their grief and anger.
This is to give life the last word.
– Andy Hamilton SJ