Q: How can I best reach out to someone who has lost a family member to suicide? My good friend's son recently took his own life, and I'm at a loss as to what I should do or say to her.
Jim: First, recognize that in addition to her grief, your friend is probably working her way through a huge amount of guilt and self-incrimination. Parents of suicide victims tend to blame themselves (and sometimes each other). They run through the "what ifs" a thousand times in their minds. They tell themselves they ought to have seen what was coming and should have done something to prevent it.
But be very careful with that understanding. Don't rush in and try to "fix" the situation. If circumstances allow, assure your friend — gently and quietly — that her son's death wasn't her fault. But don't push this idea on her.
The best plan is to resolve to be a good listener. Be there for her as she processes her emotions. Encourage her to seek professional counseling and to resist withdrawing into herself. Do what you can to make it easy for her to talk about her feelings and grieve openly.
Meanwhile, there are several reputable organizations and ministries that sponsor support groups for parents and family members of suicide victims. Examples include GriefShare (griefshare.com); SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education — save.org); and the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program (yellowribbon.org).
I invite you (and your friend) to call and discuss this situation with our counseling staff. The number is 855-771-HELP (4357).
Q: What should I do when my 6-year-old son tells me he wishes he were dead? He said that today, and I was so shocked I didn't know what to say back.
Danny Huerta, Vice President, Parenting & Youth: That statement would startle any parent! For a 6-year-old, any number of things can lead to big feelings. And big emotions can seem permanent. Kids this age don't really understand that death is permanent, too — they just see it as a way to escape from overwhelming feelings.
So, affirm your son's honesty, and then get to the heart of his thoughts. Begin by asking, "What do you mean?" It's possible that one of three things could be happening:
• He might be feeling overwhelmed by something.
Ask questions like, "When did you start feeling this way?" and "Can you tell me why?" Find the root cause, then consider a professional counselor to help him work through his feelings (see above for our counseling line). Meanwhile, emphasize that your son can talk to you whenever something feels like it's too much to handle.
• He might be talking this way to get attention.
Children your son's age often resort to extreme strategies when they feel invisible, insignificant and/or ignored. Ask him, "Do you feel like no one pays attention to you?" If he says yes, then focus on that. Find out what you can do to make sure he knows that he is seen and loved.
• He could be talking about death as a way of expressing anger or frustration.
He might feel he has too many chores, or too much homework, or that he's always in the shadow of an older sibling, etc. He might be saying "I wish I were dead" as a way of getting revenge or avoiding responsibilities. Again, ask questions to get him talking.
No matter what, don't ignore his behavior or pretend he never said those disturbing words. Instead, find out what is behind the words — and then don't hesitate to get the necessary help for your child.
NOTE: Focus on the Family offers a free and comprehensive suicide prevention training resource for parents and youth influencers at focusonthefamily.com/alive-to-thrive.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.