Synopsis: Children whose parents die by suicide face a difficult emotional recovery. Well-meaning adults often make it worse with their mistakes in how they talk about the death. Experts discuss the right and wrong ways to help children cope with parental suicide.
Host: Nancy Benson. Guests: Wendy Parmley, psychotherapist and author, Hope After Suicide: One Woman’s Journey From Darkness to Light; Donna Schuurman, CEO, Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families, Portland, OR.
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Child Suicide Survivors
NANCY BENSON: Wendy Parmley was twelve years old when she woke one morning to her dad’s screaming. She ran to the hallway to find her father frantically pacing and crying outside the bathroom door. He told her, “Wendy, watch the kids. And whatever you do, don’t go in the bathroom. Don’t let anyone go in the bathroom.” And with that he ran out of the house and left Wendy guarding the door until help finally arrived. Later that morning, Wendy’s father told her and her younger siblings that their mother had died of a heart attack.
WENDY PARMLEY: The next day I had a friend and he happened to be the Chief of Police’s son, and he told me. We were playing neighborhood games; we were playing night games, kick the can or something like that. He came up to me and said, “I know how your mom died,” and I’m like, “yeah,” and he said, “She shot herself,” and I’m like, “No she didn’t, she had a heart attack.” He continued to press me, and I ran home. By then I felt out of control, crazy, and I flung the door open and confronted my dad, who was there in our living room. I told him what my friend had said, and he did take me down to my bedroom and explained that mom had indeed taken her life.
BENSON: Parmley’s new memoir is titled Hope After Suicide: One Woman’s Journey From Darkness to Light.
PARMLEY: I was devastated! How can you even wrap your head around your mom choosing to end her life and understand that as a twelve year old? I was shocked. I was sad. I was traumatized. My world ended.
BENSON: And yet, Parmley had to soldier on with no counseling and no therapy. What was worse, she says, was that she had to keep her mother’s suicide a secret from her siblings.
PARMLEY: My dad had met with all of his siblings, and my mom’s siblings, and they had a pact to not tell the children to try to protect us. It was just an unspoken rule. She died by a “heart attack,” and that’s what we told people. That was the story. I shared that into my twenties, but my other siblings learned as they got older and friends told them. That was not the way that that should have been handled. They were devastated. They were angry. Even one of my younger sisters attempted to take her own life on the same day that my mom had taken her life. We all were traumatized by that event as we learned of the cause of her death.
DONNA SCHUURMAN: I think it is not desirable to keep any of it a secret, or the fact that the person took their own life.
BENSON: That’s Donna Schuurman, CEO of the Dougy Center For Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon, and author of Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent.
SCHUURMAN: I have never seen where that has been helpful. I don’t use the word never very often. For thirty years of listening to families and being steeped in this work, I have yet to find any child say, “I’m glad they lied to me, that was really helpful.”
BENSON: But that’s how it was twenty or thirty years ago. Back then; Schuurman says, even mental health professionals believed it was better not to talk about suicide. She’s glad that attitude has shifted, though not as dramatically as she’d like.
SCHUURMAN: I hear this all the time, “Kids are resilient. They bounce back. They’ll get over it. They don’t seem to be affected.” All kinds of comments like that. My response to all of that is, we know a lot about risk factors and protective factors for kids who are at risk for all kinds of reasons: because of poverty, because of abuse, because of early childhood loss. They’re not resilient in a vacuum. They’re not necessarily going to be ok just by time.
BENSON: Schuurman says children need some of the same things adults do to begin their recovery. They need to talk about their grief just as much as adults do.
SCHUURMAN: We know that there are factors that contribute to healthy grieving and processing of losses of all kinds. When children don’t have those opportunities, they will manifest at some point in their lives. They’ll manifest relationally. We know that kids who have early death or early parental death are at higher risk than their non-bereaved peers for depression, for anxiety, for hopelessness, for relationship issues.
BENSON: Schuurman started a grief therapy group for kids back in the 1980s. She divided the kids by age, and allowed children who had lost a parent for any reason to be part of the group.
SCHUURMAN: But as our population grew, and as we were noticing that when kids said, “My dad died in a boating accident,” and “My father got hit by a car,” and “My mom died of a heart attack,” then it would come to this kid who would say, “I pass.” ‘Cause they already know it’s not socially acceptable to say, “My dad jumped off a bridge, my dad hung himself.” So, a lot of them were hesitant to even say those kinds of things, and most of them back in the 1980s weren’t using the word “suicide”. In fact, I still hear people saying, “the s-word”. A suicide death complicates grieving for families, for children in particular, and for teens because there are so many other associations around it.
PARMLEY: Even recently, I had the opportunity to talk to an individual who lost her husband by suicide and had young children. I think her oldest was nine or ten. She hadn’t told them how her husband had died yet. Really, it’s so important to have that conversation and not to dramatize the event. That young child needs to know how their dad or mom died. Let it be ok to talk about; ‘cause there are certainly questions, and answer truthfully those questions.
BENSON: Parmley and Schuurman both say the biggest question kids have is “why.”
PARMLEY: Why? Why? Why would my mom leave her kids? Could I have been a better child? Maybe I could have prevented this. I remember thinking that, or “Why wouldn’t God bring her back to me?” And also “How?” I asked my dad, “Where? Where did she shoot herself?” I think I could’ve become a whole person more quickly and not have had to wear that mask, and been able to be more open and been able to put this experience in a place where there is peace much more quickly.
SCHUURMAN: This is what I learned from them over 30 years: they want the truth; they want to not be lied to. Those are similar, but they have some nuances that are different. So, you don’t have to tell me every single detail of everything that happens, but don’t lie to me. If I ask a question, answer it honestly. If I don’t ask, I may not be ready to hear all of it, but if I do ask don’t lie.
BENSON: But “why” is an important question for more than just survivors. Schuurman says that if all of us had a better understanding of why people take their own lives, there wouldn’t be so much stigma and shame surrounding suicide. Instead there would be compassion.
SCHUURMAN: Because of the shame and the stigma that’s often associated, kids don’t have the same open opportunity to talk about their parent or their person who died of suicide in the same way, not defining them just by how they died. Like, my dad loved riding horses, and he was such a good dad, and he had a disease. His disease was depression, and his depression led him to hopelessness. Your dad died of a kidney disease and my dad died of a disease that took him over. But I loved him and he was a good dad. I want to remember him. That opportunity is often not fostered when someone dies of suicide.
BENSON: Schuurman says the terminology surrounding suicide also contributes to the stigma. She says that years ago the nonprofit organization The Compassionate Friends started a PR campaign advocating that health professionals stop using the term “committed suicide”.
SCHUURMAN: Because it ties back to when suicide was a crime, like you committed a crime-you committed suicide. The more favored terminology would be “died of suicide”. Or, “He jumped off a bridge,” or “He took his life.” And I have always advocated for not using suicide as a noun, “He was a suicide.” We don’t use terminology of, “He was a car accident,” “He was a heart attack,” “He was a cancer.” Why do we say, “He was a suicide”? It defines the person by the cause of their death.
BENSON: No matter how it’s phrased, many people consider suicide to be selfish. We look at how devastating it is for the loved ones left behind. But both Parmley and Schuurman say in reality, suicide is about mental illness and unimaginable emotional pain.
PARMLEY: I think the main message I have is that there’s hope. There’s hope to heal. If we can reach out in love with compassion and not judgment, we can collectively heal our losses.
BENSON: You can learn more about all our guests and find links to their websites by visiting our web site at radiohealthjournal.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and nick Hofstra. I’m Nancy Benson.