CASE STUDY

Supporting children bereaved by suicide

Winston’s Wish was the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity – supporting bereaved children since 1992 – and continue to lead the way in providing specialist child bereavement support services across the UK, including in-depth therapeutic help in individual, group and residential settings. Suzie Philips and Dan Jones spoke to the Hub about how the charity approaches the support of children who have been bereaved by suicide.

Reaching out for help

Family members affected by suicide might call the Winston’s Wish helpline in the first instance. We arrange a meeting with parent/carer and have an initial session with them. We then meet with the child/children and the parent/carer, before deciding on the format of sessions. These can be with the whole family or sometimes one-to-one.

The most important message that we try to give families is that they can talk about what happened together. One of their biggest fears can be just saying the word suicide. We reassure them that they can tell the children what happened, in a way that feels right for them. That can be very freeing for the family and can feel like a weight has been lifted.

Meeting a family

We plan a number of sessions with the family and try to go with their individual needs. When we decide with the family that it is the right time to close the work we make sure they know they can come back to us in the future if things change. We want families and children to feel that they can come back to us any time. If children are very young, it might be three or four years before they are ready to talk. We always have a mind to the future for each child too. Some families stay in touch with us longer term and want to help fundraise or help in other ways.

We sometimes have referrals from elsewhere, such as through schools, through youth workers and key workers. Sometimes a GP or a social worker will refer a family. And often a family friend or relative might make the initial call until the bereaved person feels stronger. Historically, we have always made good connections with schools in our areas, especially through our bereavement training for schools. At the minute, we have a schools-focused practitioner to help us to improve links with schools.

In some ways, bereavement support is the same regardless of how a person dies. But a major difference is the freedom a family feels to talk about it.  What can happen is, if the adult in the situation doesn’t feel able to be as honest and as open as they can be, the children hold experiences that they do not share with the adult. Adult needs to lay down their cards before the child can too. It is so important to do this as a family.

A lot of worry from parents is about how to explain the death to children. The language they should use and of course the big question of why it has happened. Children can struggle with ‘Why would someone who loved me end their own life?’ and we can help them think about this as a family and share their worries and thoughts together.

we can help them think about this as a family and share their worries and thoughts together

Helping people to talk about suicide

It can also affect practitioners who have not dealt with suicide bereavement, a fear of saying the wrong thing or of making things worse. And we do understand that of course. We want everyone to feel confident to talk openly about bereavement by suicide.

We do some training with professionals where conversations will go into these areas. Our book Beyond the Rough Rock is very helpful, we use that both with families and as part of our training with professionals.

We help in other ways too. Sometimes inquests can be very long, we do work through that with the family, checking in on what is happening, what the family is experiencing.

We have worked, as a team, with Enable Law who offer training around what happens in a coroners’ court. It certainly made us more confident as a team about legalities, recording deaths, and understanding from a coroner’s perspective.

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Suzie is Head of Clinical Governance and Professional Development and Dan is a Senior Practitioner, spending most of his time working directly with families.