Son in Boarding School Loses Friend to Suicide

A parent asks our expert, "How can I help my son deal with his friend's suicide when he's so far from home?"
My 18-year-old son goes to a boarding school. How can I help him deal with his friend's suicide when he's so far from home? Are there signs I should be looking for? What's a normal reaction and what should I be worried about?
I would definitely travel to see your son as soon as possible. My son went through a tragic death of one of his freshman college friends while away at a school five hours from home. He was really shook up by this boy's death and he was unable, understandably, to get back to business as usual. We made the trip to his college a priority, even though he said that it was not necessary. He definitely did need our physical presence. He felt very vulnerable, confused and scared.

Provide your son with an opportunity to talk to you about anything and everything that's on his mind. Name his pain by telling him that you are sure that he must be devastated about his classmate's suicide. He may feel responsible in some way for his friend's death. Talk to him about those feelings and how even our closest family members can hide their darkest fears from us. Ask him what he might want to do to commemorate his friend's life, individually or with other mutual friends. It's important that life just doesn't quickly get back to normal with no time spent grieving. Ask the school how they plan to help the students cope with this loss.

Stay in closer contact with your son than usual. Let him know that he can share anything with you, without fear of losing your love. Look for whether he withdraws from what he normally takes pleasure in, including the company of friends and family. If he withdraws and behaves unlike himself for longer than two weeks, I'd consider some counseling. One cannot minimize the impact of the death of a teenage friend, especially one who has committed suicide. I know that you'll give your son what he needs.

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

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