Suicide is a public health crisis, but it is also a personal one. Every year thousands of children in the United States are affected by a parent’s suicide. The loss of a parent at any age is never easy, but there may be a simple way to help children process their grief: picture books.
That’s what recent Education Specialist graduate Lindsay Regehr, now a counseling psychology PhD student, focused on in her paper, “Storybooks to Facilitate Children’s Communication Following Parental Suicide: Paraprofessional Counselor’s Perceptions.” Her paper was recently published—a considerable feat for a master’s student—in the peer-reviewed journal Death Studies.
For this article, Regehr recruited five reviewers, all of whom had experience (1) working in either a local grief support center or school setting with children who had a family member complete suicide and (2) using books as a therapeutic tool, known as bibliotherapy. The reviewers rated 15 children’s books that covered one of three topics: parental suicide, grief/death, and emotional expression. From there, Regehr and her thesis advisor, counseling psychology and special education (CPSE) professor Melissa Heath, found several themes for determining what makes a children’s book a reliable companion for the grieving process.
First, the book needs to align with the specific needs of the child. “You really need to know the child to be able to make an appropriate choice of book and to know where to start with the conversation,” said Regehr. “If you want to talk about suicide with them, a book that explicitly talks about suicide is the best choice, but some kids aren't ready to talk about that.” If the latter is the case, Regehr recommends starting with a book that talks generally about emotions.
Starting a conversation is especially important since a parent’s suicide can sometimes strain the relationship between the child and the living parent. “There’s a lot of secrecy around suicide, and sometimes parents won't disclose that it was a suicide death,” said Regehr. “We wanted to find some books that the surviving parent could read with the child that would help the parent as well as the child.”
Regehr said the best books were also straightforward about suicide. “It is always better to say the word because kids tend to make things up in their heads. And if you don't tell them all the details, they'll imagine something—and it tends to be much worse than what actually happened.”
She explained that giving all the details of a parent’s suicide isn’t always developmentally appropriate, but it can be equally damaging when books hardly give any details. In Rabbityness, a rabbit disappears and never comes back, but the book doesn’t explain what happened to it. In another book, a “terrible thing” happens to a raccoon, but it’s never clear what that terrible thing was. “Ambiguity from the books makes it harder for the child and doesn’t encourage a clarifying conversation to take place,” said Regehr. “It perpetuates uncertainty, which is already overly prevalent in suicide deaths.”
Other themes Regehr and Heath found were using child-friendly illustrations (unlike one book’s watercolor illustrations, which some reviewers thought looked like blood), communicating the reality of suicide, and even including animals for a safe space to talk about death. Of the fifteen books reviewed, Regehr highly recommended Bart Speaks Out: Breaking the Silence on Suicide, which is narrated from the perspective of a dog named Bart whose owner died of suicide; and After a Suicide Death: A Workbook for Grieving Kids, a workbook that also includes experiences of and encouragement from other children who had family members die of suicide.
Before studying school psychology, Lindsay Regehr worked in the psychiatric unit of a children’s hospital. “Kids were coming in that attempted suicide or were having really serious ideation. I was just working with kids that were in critical crisis time.”
Because of her experiences there, she wanted to do more to help kids before they arrived at the hospital. Thus, she started the McKay School’s school psychology program, where she met Melissa Heath, whose specialty is bibliotherapy. Heath encouraged Regehr to build on her experience in the hospital with bibliotherapy.
With an EdS and a fresh publication under her belt, Regehr is now in her second year of the McKay School’s counseling psychology doctoral program. Her dissertation focuses on how sleep impacts suicidal thoughts and behaviors in socially isolated populations, which is part of a larger interdisciplinary research project between CPSE and other departments on campus.
“I think there is a great need to be able to support kids and adults, really anyone that experiences suicide,” said Regehr. “I think the more we can talk about it and bring it into the light and not hide it, I think it will help everyone.”
Writer: Anessa Pennington
Contact: Cynthia Glad 801-422-1922