When a Utah mother first started taking her 8-year-old daughter to grief support sessions in a small white house in Salt Lake City called The Sharing Place, she hadn’t told her the truth about how her father died.
In fact, Jill Macfarlane, the organization’s program director, said it took a year of working with the mother before she was able to tell her daughter what really happened: He killed himself.
But when she did tell her, it wasn’t horror or pain that washed over the girl’s face, it was relief.
The girl explained that her father had told her he was going to commit suicide, but made her promise not to tell anyone. “I’ve been so scared for the past year to tell you what really happened,” the girl said.
It was an important step for the family, but far from a rarity within the walls of The Sharing Place, an organization that advocates for openness and honesty when helping young people, some as young as 3-years-old, navigate their loved one’s death. One of the most common causes of death affecting kids in the program is suicide.
“It’s a hard thing to talk about, and our culture and our society make it this big taboo thing,” said Macfarlane. “When you don’t even want to really admit to yourself what happened, it’s going to be even worse for your kids.”
Suicide is among the top 10 leading causes for death in the U.S., responsible for more than 44,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Utah’s rate is more 50 percent higher, with 10 suicides a week, according to the state’s department of health.
Despite these concerning statistics, the subject remains largely taboo in our society.
That’s not the case at The Sharing Place, which actively advocates for parents to be honest about not only the fact that the person killed himself, but also, if requested by the child, how it was done. And while the program is specifically for children and their parents, its lessons are surely relevant throughout American society.
“We look at suicide just as any other cause of death,” said Macfarlane. “I feel like it’s just as important to talk about suicide as it is to talk about Cancer or car accidents.”
The organization has 14 groups, loosely based on age and circumstances surrounding a death. But no matter how the person died, each group starts by sitting in a circle and completing the “Check In” process, in which the kids introduce themselves, say who died and how they died.
The Sharing Place is part of a growing movement of support groups in the U.S. that have popped up over the last 20 years to help children face all manner of death, including suicide, head on, said Andy McNiel, chief executive officer for the National Alliance for Grieving Children. And although there are about 1,000 bereavement centers across the country, there is plenty of more work to do, he said.
“We really want to change the way our society understands how the death of someone by suicide impacts children and how you help them,” said Mcniel.
The Sharing Place first opened its doors in Salt Lake City nearly two decades ago after local resident Chris Chytraus’ husband died and she couldn’t find any grief resources for her two young children.
She teamed up with their therapist and, guided by an Oregon-based grief program called The Dougy Center, launched an open-ended support system for children on their own terms.
The organization is now considered one of the longest running grief support centers for children in the U.S. It has served thousands of kids, and developed a variety of techniques when helping children grieve, including a method for explaining a loved one’s death.
For example, if a child’s father killed himself, Macfarlane would explain what happened by saying, “He died from suicide because he made his own body stop working.”
If the child asks how it happened, she then would explain what tool he used, such as a gun or a rope. If the child then asks for more information, she might say, “When you use a rope, it makes your body not breathe anymore and it makes your body stop working.”
Macfarlane said it’s very important to be honest and use basic terms to explain what happened, and go into as much detail as requested. She said each kid processes a tragedy differently, so while some may simply want to know why the loved one left them, others may need to know exactly what happened.
Macfarlane gave the example of 7-year-old boy whose dad died from suicide. The mother didn’t tell him how he had done it, simply that he had killed himself at a mountain.
As a result, the boy started having nightmares about his dad falling off a cliff and his disfigured body lying at the foot of a mountain. It wasn’t until after they told him the truth, that his dad had shot himself, that he was able to move forward with his grieving process.
“When kids know the truth,” said Macfarlane, “they don’t create these big huge stories in their heads that create more problems.”