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Grief, suicide and young people

What is grief?

Grief is something every one of us has to face when we lose something or someone we love. Grief is the way we respond to that loss – the way we feel and react when we realise our future is not going to look the way we thought it would.

The most common cause of grief is the death of someone close. Grief is a normal response to losing someone, and it can cause issues with your physical, mental and emotional health. Grief can be confusing, scary and overwhelming, especially for people going through it for the first time.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and each person responds to loss in their own way and in their own time.

Grief and losing someone close to you who has taken their own life

When someone important to you dies, your grief can often feel overwhelming. It can be made even harder by the suddenness and intense shock experienced if the person who died took their own life.

You may experience a range of really strong and confusing emotions, but remember that there is no right or wrong way to react to losing someone close to you.

The grief you feel is usually not straightforward and it can be made worse depending on how close you were to the person who died, who is there to support you and how old you are.

Your grief can involve periods of intense pain and that pain can also re-occur later, sometimes lasting for weeks, months or longer. As time goes on, some people find it becomes easier to cope, but it is still hard to face difficult times such as birthdays or the anniversary of the death.

Some of the difficulties that you may face when you are trying to cope with your grief include:

  • not being able to believe the person has really gone
  • finding it hard to cope with the very strong emotional and physical responses that happen when you are grieving after someone has taken their own life
  • feeling guilty or that there was ‘something you should have done’
  • feeling angry or resentful towards the person who has died or towards other people you might feel are responsible
  • thinking all the time about the person who has died
  • finding it hard to concentrate, particularly at school
  • finding that your appetite has changed and that you’re not sleeping the way you used to
  • wanting to ask for help from parents and teachers but at the same time wanting to cope with the situation by yourself
  • feeling isolated from your friends and school mates and taking unnecessary risks

Sometimes, you can feel that your grief is not getting any better and that you are feeling worse and worse as time goes by. If that happens, it is very important to ask for some help.

People like your GP or a trusted family friend or teacher can help you with your grief. If you can’t think of anyone to talk to, you can ring the Kids HelpLine on 1800 55 1800

Young people and suicide

Suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in Australia, and it can have a deep and lasting impact on families and communities. In young people, suicide is hardly ever the result of one thing: usually it is because many different issues come together at once.

While suicide can affect people of any age, gender, family or cultural background, there are some groups of young people who are particularly at risk. The risk factors faced by these groups do not mean a young person will think about suicide or try to harm themselves. However, they do show the challenges that can contribute to mental health issues and the feelings of hopelessness which are connected to suicide and self-harm. These risk factors include:

  • a history of mental health conditions/previous suicide attempts
  • a history of substance abuse
  • relationship problems (conflict with parents, partners or peers)
  • grief following the death of a friend or family member (particularly if they took their own life)
  • extended exposure to bullying
  • disability or chronic illness
  • legal or disciplinary problems

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are more than twice as likely to take their own lives than their non-Indigenous peers, and this is linked to the damaging impact of racial discrimination and social disadvantage. LGBTIQA+ young people are also at higher risk of suicide owing to experiences of discrimination, isolation and family rejection because of their sexuality.

How to support young people who are grieving after someone they care for has taken their own life

There are a number of things that can help young people who are grieving, including:

  • strong and supportive relationships with friends, parents and other caring adults
  • feelings of safety at home, in the neighbourhood and within local networks
  • a sense of belonging – to a team, a faith, a community
  • an ability to understand and access health services and social supports

Providing support for young people who are grieving can take many forms:

  • helping them to understand that grief is normal
  • acknowledging their loss
  • making time to support their healing
  • communicating openly about the death can be a way to reduce the stigma that is often associated with suicide
  • sitting quietly with them while they talk
  • allowing them to talk about their strong emotions can help them to feel more connected to other people and support their resilience

Peer support programs can be very helpful in supporting young people through their grief. Young people who have experienced the loss of someone important through suicide can understand the emotions and difficulties that other young people are going through, and draw on their own experience to support them.

If you think someone may be severely depressed or at risk of harming themselves, ask them directly. Don’t be afraid to do this as it will show them that you care. Where possible, do not leave them alone for long periods of time and ask other reliable people to help you if needed

If you are really worried about someone and need immediate assistance, do not hesitate to call emergency services on 000

How professionals can help

For professionals supporting young people grieving after a suicide, it is important to take the following steps:1

1. Give evidence-based information about why a person may take their own life

Providing information on the link between mental illness and suicide can encourage people to seek help for themselves or others, which will decrease the risk of suicide. Talking about specific support options young people may access if they feel overwhelmed can encourage help-seeking behaviours.

2. Don’t focus on the method of suicide

Descriptions of the way the person died can be distressing, and can increase the risk of imitation by other who may be vulnerable. Where possible, keep the focus on how to manage the emotions brought up by the person’s death, rather than the details of their suicide.

3. Avoid blame

Explaining that suicide is a complex response to many factors can reduce the likelihood that blaming or scapegoating will occur. Reassuring the grieving person that they are not responsible, and that feelings of guilt and anger are common, can normalise their feelings and support their grieving process.

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