How to Talk to Children About Suicide
It is important to be honest with children and teens. They do not necessarily need to know every detail of the suicide, but they do need to know what happened. Start with a short, brief explanation of what happened, and give them a moment to respond. Let their questions guide how much detail you provide. Oftentimes, children will find out the truth from peers, other relatives, or a simple internet search. They deserve to hear the truth from their parent/caregiver.
It can be common for children and adolescents to blame themselves for the death of a loved one. That feeling of guilt can be intensified after a suicide. Children may regret things they said, didn’t say, things they did, or didn’t do. They may look back and think they are the cause for their loved one’s suicide. It is important for children to hear, often, that the suicide was not their fault. While it can be difficult, it is okay to assign blame to the deceased because they alone were responsible for their decision.
Feelings and reactions to grief are influenced by many factors, including the age, personality and developmental level of the child. You may see a broad spectrum of emotions in children and teens, including anger, frustration, guilt, relief, numbness, shock, sadness, confusion, shame, fear, loneliness and embarrassment.
Grieving children and teenagers deserve the opportunity to say goodbye and honor the life of their loved one. Memorial services, flowers, and expressions of grief should not be avoided simply because the death was a suicide. Give the child the choice to hold a memorial service, to participate in it, and to back out at the last minute if they choose.
Remembering is a part of grieving. Make it okay to talk about the happy, sad, or upsetting memories of their loved one. When families do not talk about something, it creates secrecy and shame.
At the parents’ discretion, the school should be informed of the death so they can provide support for the grieving child. It may be helpful to tell the teacher, school counselor or other administrator. Give them specific suggestions that can help their child during the school day. Examples include “When my child is grieving, allow them to see the counselor or sit down for a few minutes by themselves.” Talk with your child about the amount of information they would like shared with their teacher, their classmates, and their school.
Children express their emotions through their play more than their words. Encourage them to play, engage in physical activities, create art, write, play sports, dance, etc. Adults tend to talk through their emotions while children need to express them physically. This is an important way to validate their emotions, and help them regain a sense of control in their lives.
Our society creates a stigma about suicide and those left behind. It can be a shocking and uncomfortable topic and most people do not know what to say or how to respond. Therefore, it is critical that kids have safe places where they can talk openly about the death without judgment or shame.
Suicide is not a random act. It usually occurs along with some form of depression or mental illness. It helps children to know the person who died was suffering from some kind of illness.
It is common for children to have fears after a death loss. After a suicide, fears can be intense and even appear as panic attacks. It is helpful for trusted adults and parents to stay connected to their grieving children and listen to their questions and concerns. Parents should offer reassurance without making promises that cannot be kept.
Everyone grieves differently, including within families. Some children want to talk about the death while others do not. Some want to do meaningful expressions of feelings, and others do not. Expect that grief looks different for everyone and respect that everyone will grieve in their own way.