“Kids are resilient”. It is a phrase you have undoubtedly heard if you have had the misfortune of supporting a child through a loss, or around the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT. The good news is that statement is absolutely true – kids are resilient. Yet there is something about that phrase that makes me nervous – it makes it sound so simple: the sky is blue, the grass is green, kids are resilient.
The reality is a bit more complicated, as we know from the many kids who have not been able to adapt after a loss. Though children may have a natural ability to cope with change, there are many kids who become withdrawn, start to struggle in school, act out, or develop anxiety after a loss. I find it more helpful to think of resiliency like this: a child may have a natural talent for music, but he still needs to be taught an instrument and practice to develop. A child may have natural athletic abilities, but she won’t advance as an athlete if she is never taught a sport. Kids may be naturally resilient, but it takes time, patience, and guidance to ensure they access and develop that resilience.
So that is the bad news: “kids are resilient” is not as simple as it sounds. Supporting a grieving child while you are grieving yourself is hard work. The good news? There are more and more tools out there to help.
Every loss is hard on children, but we want to talk specifically about tools for suicide loss today, as this can be an especially complicated loss for children and adults alike. Despite the fact that we know how hard suicide can be on kids, there are only a handful of books on helping children with this type of loss. The specific challenges with kids and suicide loss may be obvious, but here are just a few to consider:
1) Suicide is often an unexpected loss for a child.
2) Depending on age, a child may not know what “suicide” means, or may have a distorted perception based on media.
3) Children may feel guilt about the death.
4) Children may feel shame or embarrassment.
5) Children may feel anger or blame toward the person for the death.
6) Children may sense that others are uncomfortable talking about the circumstances of the death or withholding information about the death.
7) Children may worry that other family members will also die by suicide.
8) Children may fear that they may die by suicide or experience suicidal ideation.
9) In cases of suicide following chronic mental illness, substance abuse, or other circumstance that have been difficult for the child they may feel periods of relief. This can cause additional feelings of guilt or internal conflict.
And those are just a few. When it feels hard to know where to start in supporting a child, activity books can be a good option. Depending on the age and personality of the child, they can be done independently or together. For kids who don’t want to talk about the loss these books can be a great alternative to expressing themselves verbally. Kids books specific to suicide loss are hard to come by. But have no fear – one of the few out there was created by The Dougy Center and it is outstanding.
The very existence of “After a Suicide Death: An Activity Book for Grieving Kids” helps kids normalize suicide loss. Even if kids know other kids who have experienced a death, they usually do not know kids who have experienced a suicide death. This can be extremely isolating for a loss that already carries a social stigma. The very fact that this workbook is specific to suicide loss, rather than general grief, reminds kids they are not the only one going through this type of loss. The margins of almost every page include quotes from kids ranging in age from 5-14 who have experienced a suicide loss. Theses quotes let kids know they are not alone. Many validate the feelings described on the list above, letting kids know their feelings are normal. Perhaps most importantly, the quotes demonstrate a wide range of feelings and experiences. On an individual page one child’s quote demonstrates forgiveness while another is from a child that cannot forgive; one child describes her friends knowing how her dad died, while another is from a child that does not tell his friends that his dad died by suicide.
Leave it to The Dougy Center to cover all the bases. They start the book by reminding kids that everyone grieves differently; there is a chance the reader may not relate to the book and that is normal. They go on to explain what suicide is, in terms kids can understand. They address all the usual questions children have, “Why did he do it? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why didn’t she tell me? Why won’t anyone talk to me? Why does it feel like I did something wrong? Why was she so selfish? Why did she leave me?” while helping kids understand that some questions simply won’t have answers.
There are a wide range of activities in this book, from memory making activities to puzzles that answer questions about suicide. Early in the book decoding and unscrambling activities give some possible answers to the question of why some people die by suicide and word searches label some of the feelings kids may be experiencing. The book has a great flow, starting with those more concrete, informational activities and slowly pushing kids further into exploring more complicated feelings. It gives kids prompts, such as “I wonder why . . . The thing I am most confused about is . . . I don’t understand . . . I was not told”. Parents and caregivers of children who have not verbally talked about these questions may find these prompts especially helpful. It is also noteworthy that all pages of the book give enough space for writing or drawing, allowing plenty of flexibility for kids who may lean toward art rather than words to express feelings.
The book has a great checklist to help kids plan for going back to school, as well as activities to help identify what they are comfortable telling other people about the death. There are activities to help them label things they find “helpful” versus things they find “hurtful”. The book closes with spaces to document memories, remember anniversaries, write their story, and write a letter to the person who died.
This book gets a glowing recommendation from WYG. For those who have a child coping with a loss that was not a suicide, The Dougy Center also offers a great workbook called “After a Death: An Activity Book for Grieving Kids”.
The good news: kids are resilient. The bad news: helping them develop that resiliency is hard work. More good news: this workbook is a great tool to get them started.