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Hope and Healing After Suicide

Helping Children Cope with a Suicide Death

I need to tell a child about a death by suicide. What do I say? What do I do?

A death or tragedy can affect many people, including both adults and children. Children need the love and support of trusted adults when a death by suicide happens. This can be very hard, especially if you are going through your own grief. You may worry or feel unsure about what to say if you have to talk to a child about death and suicide.

We hope this page gives you some basic tips to help you talk to a child about a suicide and ways to support them in their grief. This information is for parents or a child’s main caregivers, but may also be helpful to other trusted adults in a grieving child’s life.

Note: “Child and children” means children of all ages, including teens, unless talking about a specific age.

Tell the truth as soon as possible

Children can learn about a suicide in many ways, such as overhearing adults talking, hearing or seeing it on the news or social media, or from their peers (people their own age). Children can often tell when something bad has happened. One of the hardest decisions for adults is what to tell a child after a death by suicide. You may think you are protecting a child if you don’t tell them the truth about the cause of death. These fears may stop you from telling the truth and can actually prevent a child from grieving. When children think they’re being lied to, they feel confused, hurt, and alone in their grief.

You don’t need to protect children from their feelings but help support them to accept and express their feelings in healthy ways. The best ways to support a child are to:

  • Tell them the truth. Show care and understanding by talking openly and honestly about the death.
  • Tell them as soon as possible, so they hear it from someone they trust rather than from other kids or social media.
  • Find a place to talk that is quiet, comfortable, private, and where the child will feel safe to express their feelings.
  • Make sure you have plenty of time and choose a time when you don’t need to be doing other things such as working on your computer or answering calls.

Keep it simple and use words they will understand

It can be confusing and hard for people of any age when someone close to them dies by suicide. Finding the right words isn’t easy, but it’s important that children understand what you tell them. Tell them what happened using simple and direct language. Use the words “death” and “died”. Make what you tell them fit their age. You can say:

  • “They died by suicide. Suicide means that they caused their own death.”
  • “They made their body stop working.”
  • “They didn’t want to live anymore. They didn’t know that there were people who could help them.”

Don’t share too many details or talk about how the suicide happened. These details can really upset a child. Don’t use the following words to describe death:

  • passed away/on
  • asleep
  • went away

Children may be confused when they’re told a death was a suicide. They may ask a lot of questions to help them understand such as, “Didn’t they love us?” or “Why didn’t they want to live?”. Answer these questions as best you can using simple language that they understand. Tell them you don’t have all of the answers but you’re always there to talk and listen. Children will tell you what they need to know. You only need to answer what they ask you. It’s important to remind them that they can talk about it and ask you questions.

If you find it’s too hard for you to explain death and suicide, ask a friend or family member to be with you when you talk to the child.

It’s okay to show your feelings

Children learn how to deal with their grief by watching how adults in their lives cope. It’s okay for them to see you upset, confused, and not knowing what to do. When they see how you feel, it helps them understand that their own feelings are normal and okay.

Make sure children know it’s not their fault

Make sure children don’t feel responsible for what happened or for the way you feel. They need to know it’s not their job to make you feel better or fix a family’s problems.

Grief can be different for children: Listen and reassure

Children grieve in different ways than adults as they don’t understand death the same way. Children grieve in bits and pieces. They may not be able to handle strong feelings for long and tend to have many different feelings and reactions.

Children take breaks from their grief by doing their regular day-to-day activities. They often express their feelings through behaviours rather than words. Children may react to death by becoming very attached or clingy to their caregiver, having trouble sleeping or eating, behaving in an immature way, or acting out. Help them find creative ways to express themselves through art, activity, and play.

Remind children that the suicide wasn’t their fault, that they’re still loved, and that other people they care about won’t die this way. Let them know that you and others will still be able to take care of them. This lets them focus on their own grief. Make sure they understand that there are always other ways to solve problems so they don’t see suicide as a way of dealing with their own problems.

Children have a different level of understanding as they get older. Teenagers may become withdrawn and not want to talk. Respect their need for personal space but gently remind them that you are there if they need you.

Get help and learn about the types of support you can get

Children need a lot of support and comfort when someone they know dies. You may find it’s too hard to support a grieving child when you’re also dealing with grief yourself. If you need help and support, talk to someone you trust or get help from a mental health therapist or a suicide grief support group. By getting support, you will be better able to support the children in your life during this hard time. Other examples of support services include:

  • your primary healthcare provider, such as a doctor or nurse
  • a bereavement program in your community
  • a counselling service
  • friends and family members
  • a faith group

Things to remember

  • You can only do your best. Do what you can, when you can. Be gentle on yourself.
  • There is more than one way to support children in grief. Choose what you feel most comfortable with.
  • You don’t need to be an expert to give good support
  • Get help if you or a child in your life need help to deal with a death by suicide.

This page is developed from the Hope and Healing: a Practical Guide for Survivors of Suicide booklet.

Current as of: October 17, 2018

Author: Provincial Injury Prevention Program, Alberta Health Services