Q: My son-in-law took his own life last year, leaving my daughter and two school-age children. Everyone tells us the kids will be fine, but are there resources for children who lose a loved one in this very traumatic way?
A: The loss of a parent is traumatic under any circumstances, but suicide adds a very difficult dimension to grieving, especially for children.
“Children grieve through short spurts and then may return to a normal activity,” said Deborah Hutton, a supervisor for chaplains with Providence Health & Services in Olympia.
When children resume their normal behavior patterns and activities, adults may mistakenly believe that the children are just fine, dismissing children’s need for grief support. This dismissal can leave them feeling sad, confused and acting out their feelings.
“They take on thoughts we (adults) would never imagine,” Hutton said.
Many communities have resources for children’s unique grief response. SoundCare Kids in Olympia, offers weekly gatherings for grieving children. The children gather in counselor-led small groups where they explore feelings, share stories and make friends with other children who have experienced the death of a loved one.
The children’s parents or caregivers attend an adult session, learning how to care for their grieving children as well as for themselves. Everyone comes together for a closing ceremony.
If your community does not offer a grief support group for children, consult Children’s Grief Education Association, www.childgrief.org, where you will find information on children’s grief responses, how to help and what to say, a support group locator and survivors of suicide information.
Your grandchildren may tell you how they feel or what they believe about the loss as they play with blocks, enjoy the outdoors or draw pictures. So pay attention.
“A child I worked with drew a picture of herself with a cord around her wrist. The other end of the cord reached up into the sky – heaven – where it wrapped around her mother,” Hutton said.
Q: Two people I know through my work connections in the community were involved in events that became public. For one, it was a drunken driving accident. For the other, an embezzlement charge. I know everyone makes mistakes, and I want to show some support to both people. What do I do?
A: Your instinct to reach out is a good one. People involved in embarrassing, public incidents often feel abandoned by everyone. Losing your reputation can feel as traumatic as losing a loved one.
We took your question to Jeffrey Bell, a partner in the Northwest-based company Gallatin Public Affairs, because his organization specializes in helping companies and people in crisis.
He recommended first asking yourself: If I were in this situation, what would be most helpful?
“You need to be as empathetic as possible to fully understand their emotional state,” he said.
Bell said you should then call the individuals on the phone and ask to meet for coffee or lunch.
“It’s got to be face-to-face,” Bell said. “Email is the worst way. There’s no body language in it. No inflection, no tone.”
He acknowledged that it’s going to be awkward, and you might not know what to say.
“My approach is asking questions. ‘What will be most helpful to you?’ and ‘What can I do for you?’ Let them dictate what they need,” Bell said.
Don’t pry into the events themselves. If the individuals wish to explain what happened, let them talk without interrupting.
Don’t give advice, Bell said, unless asked. And don’t engage in “counter-storying” – telling them stories of other people you knew who had drunken-driving arrests or got into financial hot water.
“It’s not the mistakes you make, it’s how you handle them,” Bell pointed out. “The people who continue to go down the spiral are those afraid of reaching out. It makes the situation worse. You need the support that says you’re going to be OK.”