The death of a loved one to suicide brings a unique, complicated grief. Those left behind are left to grapple with difficult questions: Why did they end their life? What could I have done? How will I bear this? And perhaps most difficult of all, how will I help my children understand and cope with this event?
While some might worry that talking to children about the suicide could cause them further distress, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) recommends being honest and direct about the cause of death. Children need to trust the people who take care of them to feel safe. If information is withheld from them, they might imagine worse things than the reality or worry that it was their fault.
Children have a way of knowing more than we think they do—by overhearing adults talking or seeing things on social media. Being in charge of the information your child receives about the death will ensure they get accurate information in a supportive way. Furthermore, holding back about the cause of death can unintentionally communicate that this is a taboo topic and discourage your child from asking questions or sharing their feelings or concerns in the future.
According to the AFSP, tell the child as soon as possible in order to make sure they hear the news from you first. Use short sentences, simple language and
developmentally appropriate explanations. Click on this link for specific recommendations of how to talk with each of these age groups: ages 3-5, ages 6-8
and ages 9-12, in the immediate aftermath of a death by suicide. Remember, you are also likely overwhelmed and trying to come to terms with this difficult loss. If you need help talking to your child, ask for a friend or loved one to be with you when you talk to your child. It’s ok to get the support you need, so you can be there to support your child.