It’s always best to be prepared, even for a crisis as unimaginable as suicide. The first thing to do is establish a family crisis intervention plan. Here’s how we suggest you go about it:
Identify guardian angels.
Begin by identifying a group of supportive, safe adults outside the family to whom you and your kids can turn in time of crisis. Ask every family member to choose one person from this group to be his or her personal guardian angel.
If these folks are willing to serve your family in this capacity, print up their contact information on laminated cards. Have family members carry their guardian angel’s card in their wallet or purse. Post them on your refrigerator. Tell your kids, “If you ever need to talk to someone and can’t talk to us, give your angel a call and let him or her know what’s going on.”
Discuss stress management. Talk with your kids about the importance of stress management. Teens can find it difficult to read their own feelings, much less manage their psychological ups and downs. You can help them by raising the following questions:
- How do you know when you’re under stress? What does it feel like?
- What steps do you usually take to bring your stress under control?
- What can those around you do to help you manage your stress?
- How will we know if you’re not managing your stress successfully?
- Have you ever thought about suicide? (Talking about this possibility can help deprive the issue of its power and mystique.)
- If you ever do feel suicidal, how can you let us know you’re struggling? How can we know if you’re safe or unsafe?
- Would you be willing to talk to a counselor if you ever feel down or insecure?
Role play. Prepare for an emergency by getting the whole family together and rehearsing your plan of action. Take turns acting the part of the person under suicidal stress and the family member who wants to help. Have the different players run through the following questions:
- How would you express your suicidal feelings? What exactly would you say to communicate them to another person?
- What would a compassionate, supportive response sound like?
- How can you help the person with suicidal thoughts? Is there someone else who could help? Who would that be?
As you go through this process, use the S.L.A.P. acrostic to assess the level of danger (see the sidebar from chapter twenty-seven). It’s a good idea to revisit and rehearse your family crisis intervention plan every three to six months or so.
Responding to a Suicidal Action
What if your teen or some other member of your family actually attempts suicide? Here again, it’s best to have your strategy in place before an emergency arises. Naturally, your first concern will be to attend to any immediate physical and medical needs. If necessary, call 911 or get your family member to the hospital or into a doctor’s care as soon as possible.
After any medical problems have been resolved, it’s essential to get a formal assessment by a qualified medical professional. Your course of action from this point forward will depend on a number of factors. Professionals may recommend treatment for your loved one ranging from outpatient counseling to a formal treatment program in a psychiatric hospital. No matter the approach, stay involved and be proactive in your interactions with caregivers. Don’t wait for the people to contact you—take the initiative and contact them. Ask questions about treatment and progress.
We know that any act toward suicide is a desperate cry for help. Take any deliberate self-destructive act on the part of a child or adolescent very seriously. It doesn’t matter if the act was planned or impulsive, or if the child was injured or not; it was still a cry for help.
It’s important that you do everything in your power to maintain a strong relationship with the victim. Pray for her and love her with an unflinching, unconditional love. Understand that the road back to health will probably be long, and that it’s unrealistic to look for instant solutions or quick fixes. As upset or guilty as you may feel under these terrible circumstances, this is not a time to express shock and disappointment (such as “How could you do such a thing?”). Your task at this moment is to draw near to your child and help him bear the burden of his pain.
Take Care of Yourself
As you arrange for and oversee the necessary treatment for your child, take action to manage your own pain and hurt. Practice good self-care so you can stay healthy and strong enough to support your child and attend to her needs. Get help from a pastor, mentor, or professional counselor. Make sure you eat right and get plenty of sleep, rest, and exercise. This is a very real and serious aspect of the situation you’re facing.
Don’t be surprised if you are overwhelmed by a host of “Why, God?” questions. You’ll ask yourself where you went wrong and how you could possibly have missed the signs that this tragedy was approaching. You’ll wrestle with feelings of shame, guilt, and despair. Parents in your position tend to blame themselves. Be aware of these dangers and make a determined effort to avoid them. A great deal depends on your ability to stay calm, cool, strong, sensible, and available to help wherever needed.
What if your teen or family member has died by suicide? Words cannot adequately or completely describe the loss, the grief, and the range of emotions or anguish you feel. No words can bring your child back. Please hear us when we say, “It’s not your fault.” You didn’t make your son or daughter choose suicide. Whatever emotion you’re feeling right now is normal—whether it’s anger, worry, confusion, regret, embarrassment, betrayal, or something else. It’s even normal to feel several differing emotions at the same time, or in rapid succession.
As you can, talk to a trusted family member, friend, pastor, or counselor. Talk about the feelings you’re experiencing. Talk about the memories you have of your son or daughter. Talk about the confusion going on in your thinking. Talk about the “Why, God?” questions if you have them. Think about joining a grief recovery support group when you’re ready—at least for a while. And be sure to take a break from actively grieving from time to time to do normal life things, even if it feels mechanical and uninteresting at first.
Life will never be the same again. But there will come, in time, a new normal. Life will settle down, and you will find your equilibrium again. It might not seem possible at first, but your family will make it through this grieving journey.
Take Care of Your Family
Obviously, your focus will be on your child who attempted suicide. And you must tend to your own needs, too. But you must also see to it that the rest of your family’s needs are tended to as well. You don’t have to be the one doing all the tending yourself; just make sure all the members of your family are getting the attention and help each needs.
It’s not uncommon for your other children to go silent so as to not make matters worse. Children are very aware: they can tell that you are focused on their sibling and are overwhelmed. They won’t want to bother you with their feelings, anxieties, pain, anger at sibling, and so on. Take time to check in with all your children, even if they seem to be doing fine. Have a relative, teacher, or youth pastor check in with your other children as well.
Suicide involves more than just the threat to an individual life. It creates a ripple effect that touches many, many other people: extended family members, friends, acquaintances—even entire communities. Keep this larger picture in mind as you address the issue with your kids and attend to your own emotional needs.
Supporting Someone Else
If the subject of suicide hits relatives or friends of yours, consider the following ideas as you try to reach out to them with love and care.
If someone with a friend or family member is considering suicide: Help people in this position understand that there’s a great deal they can do to help their suicidal loved one. Share the S.L.A.P. acrostic with them and urge them to establish a family crisis intervention plan. Don’t allow them to minimize the situation. Instead, encourage them to talk openly and honestly with their suicidal family member. If that loved one is a child or a teenager, it’s important to stay aware of issues he may be facing at school or in his social life—issues such as isolation, peer pressure, or bullying. There are three simple messages that need to be communicated to anyone who’s seriously contemplating suicide:
- We care.
- You matter.
- Let’s get help.
Asking the question “When was the last time you didn’t feel suicidal?” will help him realize that life hasn’t always appeared as bleak as it does right now.
If someone with a friend or family member has attempted suicide: Friends and relatives of individuals who harmed themselves tend to blame themselves for what has happened. They need to be reassured that it’s not their fault. Sometimes they hesitate to reach out for help because they’re afraid of what others will think. Do what you can to help them get over that barrier. Remember that they’re probably experiencing a lot of anxiety and anger, as well as a sense of broken trust. Let them know that these feelings are normal in this situation. Meanwhile, encourage everybody concerned to stay involved with the suicidal individual. Be intentional about treating her as a person rather than a problem to get fixed.
If someone with a friend or family member has died by suicide: This, of course, is the most challenging scenario of all. Here’s what you’ll want to communicate to a person in this situation:
- It’s not your fault. No one can foresee or control the thoughts and actions of another person.
- The feelings of anger, anxiety, confusion, failure, and betrayal you’re feeling are normal. You can get on top of them if you’re willing to talk about them openly.
- Maybe you can’t believe it right now, but you will survive this. We’re here to support and help you.
At some point, you may want to encourage this person to see a therapist who can also offer support during this difficult time.
If you, your family, or anyone within your circle of friends and acquaintances is struggling in any way by the tragedy of suicide, remember to keep the lines of communication open. It’s easy to withdraw and clam up when something this terrible happens to your family. Fight that tendency with every ounce of strength and energy you can muster. It’s vital to talk about your feelings and allow yourselves to grieve openly. This has to take place whenever we lose a loved one, but it’s especially important—and difficult to achieve—in the case of a suicide.