Picture books are a way for caregivers to guide children through challenging topics, like new siblings and potty training. Asheville-based child psychotherapist Jillian Kelly-Wavering wrote a children’s book to guide children ages 7-12 through another challenge: a parent’s suicide.
My Grief Is Like the Ocean is written by Kelly-Wavering and illustrated by Jessica Biles, who is based in New York. The pair worked together on the book throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and relied on Google Docs and Zoom for their collaboration.
Kelly-Wavering, whose office is near downtown Asheville, has always been “fascinated by the inner worlds of children,” she says. Previous professional experiences, like working with children in foster care in the South Bronx, furthered interest in how kids process emotions. “I was just so inspired by the way that children communicate and cope with the most difficult experiences in life,” she explains.
Based on her own professional experience working with children who have lost a parent to suicide, she sees that these patients often face complicated grief and a lot of stigma about their individual parent’s death. “A diversity of feelings come along with death by suicide,” Kelly-Wavering says. This is true for all ages, but children have unique needs due to their psychological development. Kelly-Wavering says she consulted with elementary school teachers about the language they use talking to kids about a parent’s death and sought feedback on drafts of the book from adults who had lost a parent to suicide as a child.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 1,441 deaths by suicide in North Carolina in 2020.
A loved one’s death from suicide can bring up confusing emotions, like feeling anger and sadness simultaneously.
Kids especially can struggle with grief after a parent’s death from suicide due to “the egocentricity of early childhood,” Kelly-Wavering explains. Children have a tendency to personalize what happens in their lives — “‘If only I had told him I loved him more, he wouldn’t have been so sad,’” she says as an example.
Kids also don’t grasp the permanence of death until around age 7, she explains. They might question where the parent has gone or whether they are coming back. She also notes that caregivers being overly positive about death — such as telling a child, “your dad is in a better place now” — can be confusing. Children may interpret such reassurance as meaning their parent being alive with them was not a good place, Kelly-Wavering says.
“We wanted to put together a resource so children don’t feel so alone in their grief because death by suicide can be a complicated — and therefore a bit different — form of grief than losing a parent to cancer,” Kelly-Wavering explains.
“Complicated grief” is not an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which mental health providers rely upon for diagnoses. However, the Center for Prolonged Grief at the Columbia University School of Social Work explains the term is used interchangeably with “prolonged grief disorder,” which the American Psychiatric Association approved as a new diagnosis in 2020.
The little boy in My Grief Is Like the Ocean is depicted in a therapeutic setting. Kelly-Wavering says this was meant to normalize therapy for children, as coping with death and its aftermath can involve sequenced discussions with a child over a long period of time. When she begins seeing children as patients, Kelly-Wavering says she tells parents that she may be in the child’s life for years conducting check-ins throughout their development. Often maladaptive coping skills, like substance abuse or emotional numbing, arise in the teenage years, she says.
Some may bristle at the suggestion of discussing suicide with a child. Kelly-Wavering isn’t claiming talking to children about a parent’s suicide is easy. It isn’t. But she encourages caregivers to ensure the child has these conversations with a trusted adult and that they’re done in age-appropriate ways — lest the child find out the truth in an impersonal, potentially hurtful way.
Betsy Rhodes, a volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention North Carolina, says one way to talk to children about suicide in terms they’ll understand is to underscore how depression is an illness, saying something such as “Sometimes brains get sick the way arms get broken.” Children also need to know that their parent who died was good, but the suicide was not a good choice.
“It’s really in the child’s best interest for the child to know the truth in developmentally appropriate terms,” Kelly-Wavering says. She explains how many caregivers delay discussing a parent’s suicide with a child until many years later.
But waiting — well-intentioned as it may be — can potentially be harmful if the child learns about their parent’s suicide from extended family or social media. In such cases, “there’s a secondary loss because the child finds out the truth and then they realize that their caregiver has been withholding this information for seven or eight years,” Kelly-Wavering explains. Children need to learn that a parent died by suicide with the support of a loving caregiver, not alone via a Google search or from overheard whispers at family gatherings.
Adds Rhodes, “Not being transparent is the worst mistake.” She warns caregivers against making a parent’s suicide “a dark secret” to a child. Details like the method by which a parent died by suicide can be shared at an older age when the child has “the support and the scaffolding in place to receive that information,” she explains.
In addition to a story about a young boy whose father died by suicide, My Grief Is Like the Ocean includes two pages at the beginning directing caregivers how to read the book. It is meant to be “a resource for caregivers to know what language to use because that is perhaps one of the most impossible conversations to have with the child,” Kelly-Wavering explains.
Tackling hard topics
Caregivers may avoid discussing a parent’s death by suicide out of fear of the child doing a copycat, Kelly-Wavering continues. However, “not talking about it does not prevent it,” she emphasizes.
Rhodes, who experienced the loss of her child to suicide, says that caregivers should be aware that a child may share risk factors for suicidal behavior. She notes that research shows that suicidal behavior runs in families, although it is unclear if the behavior is due to genetics, such as a psychiatric disorder, or imitation. (988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline contains numerous resources for survivors of suicide loss: avl.mx/c2v.)
Talking about mental illness and normalizing the discussion of depression can prevent suicide, says Rhodes. For that reason, Kelly-Wavering’s book is a welcome addition to shelves. “Unfortunately, there are not a lot of books that address suicide head-on,” Rhodes says. She notes that the suicide prevention group sends bereavement packages containing relevant books about suicide to school counselors and funeral homes. She has ordered a copy of My Grief Is Like the Ocean for herself and thinks the organization may include the book in bereavement packages where children are involved going forward.
My Grief Is Like the Ocean is put out by Loving Healing Press. It publishes therapeutic books, including numerous children’s books about difficult topics like childhood cancer, terrorism and having a sibling with cerebral palsy or a sensory processing disorder.
The small publisher “was super enthusiastic about this topic given there is so little on the market about it for children and preteens,” Kelly-Wavering says.
“You don’t really think of these topics as being a part of children’s books, but it’s really important,” she continues, adding, “They’ve already asked us to consider tackling other hard topics in the future.”