When a Loved One Takes their Own Life

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Coping with the suicide of a parent

It is never easy to discuss suicide. When an individual makes the decision to take their own life, it affects countless others. Community members, colleagues, friends, and, of course, family members all suffer the grief of this tragic loss. As a result, to many of us, suicide may seem senseless or even selfish. Those who have been affected by suicide often find themselves angry at the individual who has taken their own life for causing so much pain.

The stigma surrounding this topic can halt conversations about suicide before they begin or keep communities silent on the topic. It is often considered taboo to even mention suicide or to speak openly about someone who has taken their own life. But death by suicide is extremely prevalent worldwide – according to the World Health Organization nearly 700,000 people die due to suicide every year [1] – and unless we begin to speak about it openly, we cannot hope to mitigate this. 

We rarely discuss the effect that suicide has on family members. For example, we rarely ask how a child is affected by a parent’s, sister’s, or brother’s suicide. Instead, whether due to shame, uncertainty, fear, or anger, we usually stay silent. This is much to the detriment of the mental health of mourning family members, who are often in need of close friends and family to speak to about their grief.

Over the next two weeks, I will examine how death by suicide affects families and how the suicide of one family member has significant impacts on the entire family system and can affect the mental health of individuals long after the event. This week, I will focus specifically on what happens to a children when a parent commits suicide.

Left Behind: How Children Cope

Much research has been done on how parent suicide affects children, and although it is difficult to obtain exact figures, many experts estimate that between 7000 and 30,000 children experience the death of a parent by suicide in a given year. [2] When it comes to the emotional effects of the suicide of a parent on children in the family, researchers have emphasized that grief is complex as it comprises multiple stressors at once. First, these young people have experienced the loss of a primary caregiver, but they simultaneously experience the death by suicide of a significant person in their lives. [3]

For anyone, encountering the suicide of a significant figure in life is challenging. Given that children are already considered a vulnerable group, the suicide of a parent can have devastating and life-altering consequences. Children of parents who commit suicide are at a higher risk of developing a mental health condition or major psychiatric disorder and are more likely to die of suicide themselves later in life. [4] 

Because the nature of grief in the wake of a parental suicide is so complex, children are often confused by their feelings: anger with their parent, for example, or a feeling of rejection. These feelings can lead to a secondary feeling of guilt, which can compound and complicate the healing process by restricting positive thoughts and self-soothing practices. Furthermore, the stigma around suicide can make it difficult or even impossible for family members, friends, and community members to openly communicate with the child about their parent’s suicide, meaning that children are never offered the opportunity to process their feelings about this extremely traumatic event.[5]

However, young people also show a remarkable degree of resilience across studies that aim to track the long-term effects of parental suicide on the life of a child. Research has indicated that there is a critical window for intervention in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide during which carers, health care professionals, or other concerned adults can reverse the likelihood of mental health conditions developing later on. Survivors of this traumatic loss of a parent need a caring environment and open communication with concerned and compassionate adults. This support in the aftermath of a parent’s suicide can make the difference between life and death for the child.

Parental Suicide is Seldom Isolated

The suicide of a parent rarely results from an isolated psychological event. Though some suicides do follow sudden changes in circumstance, or sudden stress (the loss of a job, for example, or some other traumatic life experience), suicide is more likely to take place if an individual has already been struggling with a mental health condition – in particular, depression or alcohol use disorder. [6] 

As a result, children of parents who commit suicide often experience a disrupted home life before the death occurs. In a study conducted by researchers at Cambridge University, all of the included children of parents who had commited suicide were already subject to stress as a result of their parent’s mental health condition. [7] 

How that pre-existing stress affects how a child copes with the death of a parent by suicide varies: according to the same research, some children are able to better conceptualize and, therefore, cope with the suicide because they see it as part of a longer battle on the part of their parents. For a limited number of the children in this particular study, there was even an expression of relief that an insupportable parental situation had come to an end.

This by no means indicates that parental suicide is easy for children. These research findings merely indicate that suicide often comes as a larger trajectory of mental health conditions and household stress which affects the child over a much longer period of time than friends, teachers, or other community members who want to support the child of a parent who has committed suicide may be aware of. If we hope to provide these children with effective and compassionate support, we must also understand the broader psychological and social arc of which death by suicide is so often a part.

Next week, I will look at how a family member’s suicide affects their siblings and how family systems can work to lower the likelihood that long-term trauma of a death by suicide will create significant problems later on.

Sources

[1] World Health Organization, (2021). One in 100 deaths is by suicide. News, WHO. https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2021-one-in-100-deaths-is-by-suicide

[2] Watson, C. et al. (2021). Very young child survivors’ perceptions of their father’s suicide: exploring bibliotherapy as postvention support. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2021 Nov; 18(21): 11384. Published online 2021 Oct 29. doi: 10.3390/ijerph182111384.

[3] Kuramoto, J. et. al. (2011). The impact of parental suicide on child and adolscent offspring. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour. Volume 39, Issue 2 p. 137-151.

[4] John Hopkins Medicine, (2010). Children who lose a parent to suicide more likely to die the same way. News and Publications, April 21, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/children_who_lose_a_parent_to_suicide_more_likely_to_die_the_same_way

[5] Koplewicz, H.S. (2021) Coping with a parent’s suicide. Child Mind Institute. September 27, https://childmind.org/article/coping-with-a-parents-suicide/

[6] World Health Organization, (2021). Suicide: Key Facts. Newsroom, WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/suicide

[7] Shepherd, D.M. and Barraclough, B.M. (2018) The Aftermath of Parental Suicide for Children. The British Journal of Psychiatry , Volume 129 , Issue 3 , September 1976 , pp. 267 – 276. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.129.3.267

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