Mary Kennedy's Children Likely Dealing With Complicated Grief

PHOTO: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and wife Mary Richardson Kennedy are shown in a 2001 family photo with Ethel Kennedy.PlayRJ Capak/WireImage
WATCH Mary Richardson Kennedy Dead: Suicide

The four children of Robert Kennedy Jr. and Mary Kennedy face a complicated grieving process in the aftermath of her suicide, mental health experts say.

"Initially, the biggest challenge for kids that deal with the suicide of a parent is taking in that news and all the information and circumstances surrounding the death," said Jon Ebert, assistant professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The couple's four children range in age from 10 to 17, and around that age range, children dealing with the suicide of a parent can experience a number of emotions.

Starting about age 12 or 13, children have a better understanding of suicide.

"Children can differentiate between death and suicide well, and they usually interpret the suicide by saying that the parent was sick or ill," said Dr. T. Byram Karasu, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "They will usually blame the spouse. They will deny the loss and hate the spouse."

Karasu added that children who lose a parent at such an age end up growing up very quickly.

"Their growth is interrupted," he said. "Adolescents usually end up becoming adults very fast."

In some cases, children end up identifying with the deceased parent and assuming that parent's role, which can be a healthy defense mechanism, Karasu said.

But in other cases, children may respond by acting out and rejecting authority.

Younger children usually see death and suicide as interchangeable, Karasu explained. They may feel depressed and anxious but not know why, and may also feel very vulnerable after the loss.

Children also struggle with the unanswered question of why their parent left them, Ebert said.

"It's important to clearly communicate to kids that their mom or dad was sick," he said. "Suicide is a symptom of depression, and it's a level of depression that is significant to the point that the person felt so helpless or hopeless that they took their own life."

The children's grief is also compounded by the publicity surrounding Mary Kennedy's death and the notoriety of the Kennedy family.

"There are so many people watching to see how you respond and how you're doing," said Ebert.

As they deal with the grieving process, experts stress it's also especially important for the children to have a support system in place.

"It's crucial for there to be a strong presence of family and community, such as people in schools or religious organizations, to support children after their loss," Ebert said.

He added that children can be comforted by remembering their deceased parent as they grieve and mourn.

"It's important to maintain cherished memories that provide comfort to these kids," Ebert said.