I've struggled with writing this because, well, we never want to imagine our kids having to deal with grief. But the reality is that they might experience this kind of death and as parents, we need to be prepared to know how to hold space for them.
*Holding space: the act of bringing your entire essence to someone. Walking with them through their grief and on their journey without judgment and with lots of love and care.
1. Say something. Talk to them. Determine what they can handle based on age and maturity and tell them the truth. Kids always know, and you want them to know the truth from you instead of the rumors that might be going around. Don't let the fear of not knowing what to say keep you from saying anything at all. Your child might not know that they need you, but they do. They need you to be a constant when things feel uncertain. And that means being brave enough to address the things that feel un-addressable.
2. Listen. Don't problem-solve. Don't give advice. Just listen, with your whole heart, and validate their feelings.
3. Be present in the silence, too. It's ok if they don't want to talk at all. Their grief journey will be different from yours, and you can't rush them or expect them to deal with it in a certain way. You might be surprised by how "ok" they are or by how much they have fallen apart. It's all ok. If they don't want to talk, just be with them. Give them a hug. Tell them you are there for whenever they might need you.
4. Deal with your own emotions about this. You will need to process this too and it's important to model that. The death of a child always understandably stirs up fears in parents - what if it was my child? Just like you should validate your child's emotions, you need to validate your own. It's ok to feel sad or scared or relieved that it wasn't your child. It's ok to cry in front of them. It's ok to validate their anger or confusion. It's all ok.
5. Show them the importance of self-care. Stress and grief impact eating and sleeping habits. And the less we eat and sleep, the less we are able to deal with strong emotions. Give them some space, and then encourage them to continue eating and sleeping as they normally do. And if they are struggling with this, ask them what you can do to help get them back on track.
6. Honor memories. Talk to your child or teen about their friend. Brainstorm ways that you can honor their friend's life - either you and your child or ways that you can help your child and their friends do this.
7. Cut them some slack. Of course, your rules still apply and there's never an excuse for disrespectful behavior. But be mindful that your teen has just experienced a major event - their foundation feels as if it's very well crumbling. They might be more short with you. Or not want to talk. Or scoff at your question of "how are you doing with this?" Their anger at the situation very well might be directed at you. You are their safe space. Show them you can hold their anger for a bit.
8. Take your teen's lead. You have the experience here, but this is your child's journey. Don't force them to talk or deal with it in a way that you think is right. There's no "right" way to grieve. Hold space. Honor their journey by walking alongside them.
These emotions that you and your teen might be feeling will be amplified if the friend died by suicide. The emotions might be stronger. It's often a harder concept to understand. Create the space for your teen. Show them that you are a safe space, and that you hear them, and that you will hold their emotions. Explore with them options for if they ever felt desperate or hopeless. Remind them that it's not their fault.
What to watch for in your own child on this journey:
- have they significantly withdrawn?
- are they talking a lot less?
- do they appear constantly angry?
- do they seem to be obsessed with death or dying?
- are grades dropping?
- are you noticing any significant changes in their overall appearance or well-being?
Know that help is available. Your school's guidance counselors, principal, other parents, or trusted adults. And there's always outside therapists for additional support. Make sure you are all getting the support you need during such a tremendously difficult time.
*If you're looking for books or more information on this topic, please click here.