The literal meaning of suicide is an intention of taking one’s own life and it is closely associated with grief, which is very complex in it. The grief and long-term outcomes on family especially the most vulnerable group, children who have lost their parents are of prime concern for family and the society as a whole. The number of parental suicide deaths is increasing every year. Though suicide prevention is on high priority, less attention is being given on the outcomes of suicide for family members including children dealing with the loss.
Suicide as the name suggests often embodies a painful and vicious death and brings a strange challenge before the bereaved family (Ratnarajah, 2007). The bereaved may have higher levels of guiltiness, blame and feelings of accountability, rejection and desertion. They may also experience stronger feelings of stigmatization, social isolation and disruptions to family communication. Children bereaved by parental suicide experience high risk of such symptoms and social maladjustment. Children and teenagers possess egocentric nature and more often than not assume that the death of their parent is their fault, no matter how they died. The egocentrism or self-perceptive nature of children makes the situation worse in case of parental bereavement.
The child’s age and developmental stage can have significant influence on their capacity to adjust to parental loss and suicide. In the early childhood stage, they have little or no knowledge of death, however, the feelings of parental death becomes stronger with age and psychosocial development in them and then they understand that death is final and everyone has to die at some point of time in life.
Children do not realize a mature and sensible understanding of the inevitability of death until the age of 8 to 11 years. Children’s emotional and cognitive development is quite different from the adults. Some common feelings children experience are sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, etc. However, many children suffer from several depressive symptoms. Their subsequent suffering could lead to adverse consequences in personal growth including mood disorders, depression, anxiety and hyper-arousal among others.
Therefore, early identification of symptoms and therapeutic intervention is crucial to prevent the development of negative health outcomes in children.
It has been experienced that when children contemplate the death of someone close to them, their understanding of death worsens and more primitive notions of death are held. The same finding has been supported by other studies showing that the death of a parent when a child is preadolescent is associated with an increased likelihood of psychosocial development disorders manifesting in late adolescent or early adulthood. However, a child who loses a parent in the earlier stages of development struggles to find a sense of meaning in the death.
It is very difficult to identify the definite course of adjustment of children to parental bereavement because there is a discrepancy of longitudinal studies highlighting on the growth of the suicide-bereaved child. However, a normal children bereaved by parental death suggests that delayed grief reactions may be triggered when subsequent life changes occur such as remarriage of the single parent, or having their own child. It is a fact that bereaved children often seek to maintain a connection to a dead parent by constructing an inner depiction of the dead parent and that this image tends to evolve and transform as the child grows. Since the inner depiction is likely to be built from the shared memories of other family members – effective communication within the family can play a critical role in the child’s budding image and the relationship with the deceased ("Effective communication with," 2006).
Personal attributes of bereaved
There is a fundamental need of family systems, societal support systems and the interface between these systems. However, the quality of support offered to the bereaved child from the family may also determine their social adjustment. The attachment behavior may also depend on the level of closeness the child had for the deceased parent and the lack of acknowledgement for the significant loss may increase feelings of isolation in the bereaved child. An atmosphere of blame in the family (egocentrism) of the suicide victim is also a common experience.
Children need to be told about the suicidal death of their parent in an appropriate way and let them explore the meaning of this death as they mature. Depending on the age of the child, the egocentric behavior of believing that they were the cause of death or that the deceased parent did not love them or wanted to die and thereby abandon them changes as they mature. Sometimes, this could lead in the loss of trust that a caring support would always be available to them. Hence they are vulnerable to perceive the suicide as a personal rejection of themselves.
Making the child aware of the grief about the parent’s death is one of the most crucial factors or roles the family members play. However, how well this is done by the surviving family determines the meaning the child constructs about the parent’s death and the child’s own sense of worth and security. Moreover, quality of interrelationships within the family is an important influence on whether a child can bounce back if trauma occurs. If the child has a healthy relationship with the surviving parent, he or she copes with the situation more effectively. In addition, it is important whether the home environment is structured and well organized. Parenting skills and reliability of parents or key adults are important issues in establishing a safe environment for the bereaved children.
The quality of social support to the bereaved family is very important in determining how well they are able to cope following the death of the parent. Social support, on the other hand, can have a profound effect in maintaining the child’s sense of coherence and security within the family. In addition, the relationship with peers and friends, school environment, youth organization, Church and other community will also support how effectively children are able to cope to the loss or trauma.
Communities with broad social networks offer more help and support to bereaved children. In addition, interaction between interpersonal, familial, social, and community factors influence development of protective coping skills among children.
Developing Resilience in Children And Families
Resilience simply means the ability to adjust, adapt, and bounce back in spite of ups and downs in life. Factors that may encourage resilience in bereaved children can drive from personal self inherent within the child, as well as the family and social environment in which the child has been raised. The way a bereaved child makes it possible to construct an understanding of the traumatic event impacts directly on the ability of children to adjust and recover with time.
Inner protective factors in the bereaved person include stoicism, determination, and self-resilience. Protective factors play an important role in fighting with the stress, risk, and encourage coping and competence, which also includes self-efficacy. In addition, the family culture and faith-based strengths provide cohesion and support internal fortitude.
There is a need to study the family and broader social and economic context of the suicide bereaved child rather than focusing on individual pathology. In addition, the personal attitudes of an individual towards the family and the society as a whole are of prime importance in this study. Children who are egocentric take longer time to adjust and understand that they are not the real cause of death and any other negativity that they have borne in their mind.