Parenting a child through the death of a friend is unbelievably difficult. When that friend’s death is the result of suicide, the difficulty increases exponentially. The pressure parents feel to rescue and protect their children while also dealing with their own flood of emotions is debilitating. The truth is, there are no answers when a child ends their own life. The anguish and confusion we and our children feel is a normal reaction to a devastating, unthinkable tragedy. Our task as parents becomes navigation — walking with our children through uncharted territory, helping them grieve well, honor their friend and, in time, move into a new normal.
The Psalms offer a powerful model for navigating the soul-penetrating sorrow of grief. The inclusion of David’s raw, gut-wrenching struggles reveal God’s ability to handle our most difficult emotions and, even more, the value He puts on expressing those emotions within the context of His promises. There are several ways we can help our children walk through the psalm of their own grief.
First– please listen without judgment. Ask what your children have heard about the death of their friend. Express curiosity about how their friends are talking about it or dealing with it. Often children are more comfortable talking about their friends’ perspectives before their own. Avoid saying “I know how you feel” or interrupting to tell of how you handled a similar situation. Expect to hear anger, confusion, denial, sadness and a wide range other emotions. Expect to see moodiness, tearfulness, irritability and some isolation.
Give your child permission to deal with grief in his or her own way. Everyone deals with grief differently; your child is no exception. Feelings often vary widely in short periods of time. Children and teens have difficulty talking about emotionally intense situations for extended periods of time. Just like we blink when looking at a bright light, give your child permission to “blink” by shifting focus to homework, the weather, a game or another less intense subject. You can help them return to the topic of grief after a few minutes or at a different time.
You should be honest. You will not have answers because there are no answers. Put that into words for your child. Simply saying “I don’t know what to say but I love you and we will get through this together” can be powerful. Seek help from grief professionals if you are concerned about how your child is handling their emotions.
Don’t be afraid to talk about their thoughts and feelings. Your child is already thinking about their friend and the circumstances of their death; asking about those thoughts is a way to communicate safety and normalize the grief process. Use car rides to and from school to say, “I was thinking about your friend today and praying for their family.” Simple statements like this are a way of acknowledging the situation without putting pressure on them to answer questions.
Honor their friend. Help your child remember how their friend lived, not just how they died. Create an art project or video that represents who their friend was. Encourage them to collaborate with friends. Share memories together.
Always be prayerful. Our ultimate source of parenting wisdom is Christ. As you lift up your child, their friends, your community, the Holy Spirit will equip you to parent your child well.
As you journey with your child over the weeks and months of grief, be gracious with yourself. This task is impossible to do perfectly. Instead, remember Christ’s response. When faced with the death of His friend Lazarus and the grief of his friends, He simply wept even though He knew the happy, resurrection ending He would provide. Jesus knew it was important to go through the process with Lazarus’ family to strengthen His relationship with them. In the same way, we walk with our children, our friends and our family, weeping together, holding both grief and hope together.
We can trust that one day, all our tears will be wiped away in the presence of the living God.