The death of a parent by suicide is especially traumatic. Researchers estimate the number of children in the United States annually who experience their parent's suicide ranges from 7,000 to 30,000. These child survivors experience more complicated grief as compared to children bereaved by a parent's non-suicidal death. In particular, very young children have difficulty understanding that their parent completed suicide. Across time they struggle with confusion and intense emotions associated with their parent's suicide. Due to the stigma associated with suicide, feelings of guilt, and intense grief, surviving family members avoid talking about the suicide. Young children are often confused and suffer in silence with limited understanding about who the deceased parent was and why the parent completed suicide. Individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven adults, who as young children experienced the death of their father by suicide. All participants reported being five years old or younger at the time of the suicide. Participants explained how they found out about the suicide; how they developed an understanding of their deceased father across the years; and how they developed memories of their father, largely dependent on others' stories and reported details. At the conclusion of the interviews, participants were offered nine children's picture books. Participants self-selected books from these nine books and offered their impressions about how these books may or may not be helpful for young child survivors of parent suicide. Their reactions to the books are discussed in relationship to their personal stories and lived experiences. Their reactions have implications for how potential books must be carefully selected, making considerations in light of the child's unique experiences. Participants' responses highlighted the importance of attachment issues, the challenges of forming a connection to the deceased loved one with limited memories of their parent. Ultimately, survivors' perceptions and experiences are tied to the challenges of navigating Worden's (1996) tasks of grief. Implications for applied practice include considering how to use children's literature to open and encourage communication, allowing children to ask questions about the suicide; supporting young children in accepting the reality of their parent's death; facing the grief and pain with the support of loved ones; adapting to changes in their life's trajectory due to their father's suicide and adapting to altered family relationships; and building memories of the deceased loved one, and when possible, ensuring healthy attachment to the deceased parent.
College and Department
David O. McKay School of Education; Counseling Psychology and Special Education
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Watson, Cortland L., "Very Young Child Survivors of Parent Suicide: Perspectives on Children's Literature for Bibliotherapy" (2021). Theses and Dissertations. 9005.
father's suicide, child survivor, grief, bibliotherapy, communication, tasks of grief