Teens Ask Helen
What do you tell friends about a family suicide?
Helen Fitzgerald is a renowned educator and writer on death and dying. She will be writing a column for Beliefnet on the grief of children and teens.
Q1.My dad killed himself, but my friends don't know how he died. What should I tell them?
Quite likely your father was suffering from severe depression, and this is why he took his own life. It is always hard to understand why anyone would do this, but there is no reason for you--or anyone else--to feel guilty or ashamed about what happened. We are all responsible for our own actions, but we are not responsible for the action of others. By all means, do not try to keep this a secret. If you tried to conceal the truth, you would live every day in dread of its being discovered. On the other hand, you hardly want to issue a family bulletin saying, "Hey, my Dad killed himself." What I suggest is that you share this information with a close friend and ask him or her to help you in the coming months as you try to restore some normalcy to your life. Over time others can be told, as well. Far from hurting your friendships, this can help create an even stronger bond between you and the friends you choose to trust with the truth about this family tragedy.
In the meantime, I hope that you and the rest of your family are getting plenty of help as you try to come to terms with your father's death. Suicide is especially hard on the family members left behind. It may surprise you, but it can be helpful to talk and listen to other people who've gone through a similar, shocking loss. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention has a current listing of support groups throughout the country. Their toll-free number is 1-888-333-2377.
Q2. Because I was fooling around when my Mom wanted me to go to the store, she sent my brother instead. On the way he had an accident and was killed. I feel terrible. I miss my younger brother and everybody seems to think his death was my fault. I guess that it was my fault in a way, but I don't think it's right that I should take all the blame. What do you think?
A2. I suspect that what you are now feeling is what they call "survivor guilt," feeling somehow at fault simply because you're alive and your brother is dead. Also, you need to clarify in your own mind what an accident is: something that happens that wasn't planned. When you were fooling around, you had no way of knowing that the person going on that errand would be killed. If you had gone and been killed, would your mother have blamed herself for sending you? Would you have blamed her? No one deserves the blame for something that just happens out of the blue. I can assure you that your brother's death was not your fault, nor was it your mother's.
I suggest that you talk to your family and tell them how you are feeling. I doubt that they truly think that you are in any way to blame, but it will make you feel better to say how sorry you are that you didn't go on that errand when asked. Just facing up to this, openly discussing it with your family, will help you get over this misplaced guilt. You can show your love for your brother, not by assuming false guilt, but by dedicating your best efforts in the future to his memory.