The World Health Organization identified suicide as the second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29. In 2012, the National Statistics Office reported a suicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 persons in the Philippines. This recent study also revealed an increasing trend of suicide in the younger age groups of 5-14 and 15-29.
These numbers speak volumes when translated to the sadness that people feel when they hear about young people commiting suicide. In March 2013, the nation was shocked when Kristel Tejada, 16, and a freshman student of behavioral studies in UP Manila decided to end her life after she was forced to take a leave of absence because her family could not pay for her tuition.
People feel a certain kind of sadness just by reading news about suicide -- how much more if the person involved is a loved one? How do you explain it to children? Explaining death, loss and suicide to children is a challenging task. Here are some suggestions to remember:
1. Be honest and mindful. “Why did Ate die?” Some parents dread to hear this question from their children. There are instances when they choose not to answer truthfully believeing that it is best to spare their children of the pain.
According to Prof. Ma Luz Centeno, RGC, MP, a Pschology professor at the Polythechnic University of the Philipines and a practicing counselor, in cases where a family member committed suicide, honesty is still the best policy.
“It is best that parents or elders tell the truth to children but they should also be mindful of the levels or developmental stages of their children. Explaining suicide to a 4-year old child is totally different from answering the questions of an 8-year old,” said Centeno.
She gives an example on how parents can answer this difficult question: Why did she kill herself? “Ate’s body got so tired and she became very, very sad. She was not able to ask for help from us that’s why she decided on her own to let her body rest and leave us.”
How can one be honest and mindful at the same time? It is plainly by explaining the truth in ways that children can relate based on their developing experiences.
Suicides are often caused by severe depression. Children aged 4 to 7 years old definitely can’t understand depression in its medical sense. Parents should describe the condition in ways where children can picture or imagine severe sadness. It can be shown as ten times more than how you feel when you lost your favorite toy in the playground.
It is also important to stress that suicide can be prevented if only the person asked for help. Children should also understand that they have nothing to do with the person’s decision to commit suicide.
Being mindfully honest with our children builds trust. It makes children feel that they can trust you and make them open up more.
2. Give them short and sweet answers. Remember that being honest doesn’t mean explaining too much. Stick to the child’s questions. Answer as briefly and truthfully as you can. Feeding too much information will lead to more questions. It could make the situation more complicated, confusing and difficult for the children to deal with their pain and grief.
Asking children the right questions is equally important in their healing process. Encourage them to open up and express what is inside their minds and how they feel.
And for the sweet part: Don’t forget to always end conversations by giving your child a big hug. A tight embrace gives assurance to your child that you will always be there for him.
3. Help them cope. Prof. Centeno also shared that suicide leaves a lasting imprint to those people who were left behind. Sadly, children are not spared from the painful memory brought by this permanent loss. The support that they need should focus on helping them cope with the sudden loss, pain and grief they are experiencing.
Coping also means maintaining normalcy in the children’s lives. Routines at home should be continued to show that life goes on even after a painful loss. Children will find it more difficult to adjust when they see extraordinary changes happening after that sad event. Putting them in a different school or transfering to another community will add more worries to their minds. These sudden changes may even cause more trouble for the child’s behavior.
Coping also means trusting others, seeking and appreciating their help. By showing constant and consistent support to children, stronger family relationships are built.
4. Use writing and drawing as tools to express their anger. If children are having a hard time verbally expressing their thoughts, encourage them to put their thoughts into drawing. They may draw a broken heart or a favorite toy he and the deceased always played with. Through their drawings, parents will know what’s inside their minds and the next steps they should take to help children move on.
For older children, motivate them to write their thoughts in a journal. This outlet may also lead them to create works that are not only helpful in their healing but may open new creative passions to pursue.
In the end, always remember that in times of crises, it is best to listen intently to our children and learn from them, while at the same time being more mindful and hopeful that brighter days will definitely come.