Suicide is very difficult for anyone who is impacted by it and gives rise to a range of emotions. There is no right way or wrong way to feel or react when somebody dies by suicide. This will be different for different people, even in the same family.
When a person dies by suicide, this loss will have a different significance for each person and consequently each person’s grief will be different. People may feel sadness, anger, guilt, helplessness, shock, relief, loneliness or may just feel numb.
Starting the conversation
It is understandable to be nervous about starting conversations about death with children, it may feel overwhelming and intimidating.
- It is normal to want to protect them from the pain and distress but it is important to be honest with children
- We can’t fix or reverse what has happened, but we can do our best to help children through the reality of this difficult time in an honest and open manner.
- Children will have a different understanding of death depending on their age, so it can be helpful to first check with them what their understanding of death is.
Why is it important to be open and honest?
Children who are not told the truth often fill in the blanks themselves, the stories children create in their own heads without the facts can make them more confused and anxious.
Another difficulty of not telling children the truth is that they may be told by people outside of the family. For example, children at school may find out and may tell them, or they may find out through the internet or social media.
How to explain suicide to your child
It is normal to be nervous or uncomfortable, so we suggest that you practice what you want to say beforehand. Take some time to take a breath and process your own feelings first.
Explaining a suicide death is best done by a series of steps, each one adding a new level of understanding, building on what the child may already know.
A good tip is to start by asking the child to tell you in their own words ‘what they understand happened’.
Reactions and emotions
It is also normal for everyone to be upset – some people will cry others go quiet or maybe get angry and lash out – let everyone handle their reaction without judgement (unless they are going to hurt anyone) – don’t be afraid to show your own emotions/feelings.
Children can all react differently, there is no right or wrong way to react:
- One minute crying, the next minute playing.
- Withdraw, act out, regress, sleep disturbance, fear of the dark, anger and fear can be displayed.
- Night-time can be very difficult as children are not distracted and feeling alone.
Answering Difficult Questions
A death through suicide can leave people with many unanswered questions. For some questions, such as ‘why did the person die?’ there may be no easy or quick answers. It is ok to tell the child you don’t know why it happened
Support families to find the words that work for them – they know their children best and what will be meaningful for them. Try to use phases like ‘died by suicide’, or ‘ended his/her own life’
Here are some sentences that you might use to start the conversation..
- People die in lots of ways. They might get sick or have a bad accident, or they might die because they’re
old and their body stops working. Suicide is when a person is so very ill and so deeply sad that she chooses to make her body stop working.
- When someone ends their life, it is because they don’t think there is any way of feeling better – even
when everyone else around them can see there is.
- Suicide is when somebody ends their life.
It is not uncommon for young children to imagine that they caused the person to die. With a death by suicide, they may worry that they could have done something to prevent it. Reassure them that this is not the case.
Not having the answers
The child may be angry and frustrated and have questions you can’t answer. You may have to explain that you don’t have all the answers. It’s OKAY to say you don’t have all the answers.
It is normal to search for answers but the only person who really knew why this happened is the person who has died. In the end, it may be a case of accepting that there are things that will never be known.
Here are some sentences that you might use in response to some questions….
- Only the person who dies knows how all the all the feelings and thoughts and all their own emotional
history to make suicide seem the only choice.
- Often people don’t want to die but they just don’t know how to feel better. It is not your fault when
somebody dies by suicide
If you do not have an answer or are worried about saying the wrong thing or they ask at a time that is difficult – then it is okay to say
‘I think that is an important question, let me think about it and I will come back to you later’
This validates their question and gives you some breathing space to reflect or check things out.
Download further information Suicide Bereavement and Children