Children need the love and support of trusted adults when a death by suicide happens. It can be hard to give this support, especially if you're going through your own grief. You may worry or feel unsure of what to say to a child about death and suicide.
This information can help you talk to a child about a suicide and gives you ways to support them in their grief. It's for parents and caregivers, but it can also help other trusted adults support a child who is grieving.
Note: “Child and children” mean 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. They might:
- overhear adults talking
- hear or see it on the news or social media
- hear it from their peers (people their own age)
Children can often tell when something bad has happened. It’s hard to know what to tell a child after a suicide. You may think you’re protecting a child if you don’t tell them the truth about the cause of death. But not knowing the truth can stop a child from grieving. And when a child thinks you’re lying to them, they feel confused, hurt, and alone.
You don’t need to protect children from their feelings. But you need to 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. Talk openly and honestly about the death.
- Tell them as soon as possible, so they hear it from someone they trust rather than from other children or social media.
- Find a place to talk that’s quiet, comfortable, private, and where the child feels safe to express their feelings.
- Make sure you have plenty of time. Choose a time when you don’t have other things to do.
Keep it simple, and use words they 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.
Make what you tell them fit their age. Tell them what happened using simple and direct language. Use the words “death” and “died.” Expressions like the following may confuse a child when you talk about death:
For example, you could say:
- passed away or passed on
- went away
- “They died by suicide. Suicide means that they caused their own death.”
- “They made their body stop working.”
Try not to share too many details or talk about how the suicide happened. These details can really upset a child.
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 your child.
Answer their questions
Children may ask a lot of questions to help them understand suicide, such as, “Why didn’t they want to live?” Answer these questions as best you can using simple words that they understand. Tell them you don’t have all 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.
Show your feelings
Children learn how to deal with grief by watching adults. It’s OK for them to see you upset, confused, and not know what to do. When they see how you feel, it helps them understand that their feelings are normal and OK.
Make sure children know it’s not their fault
Remind children that the suicide wasn’t 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.
Remember grief can be different for children
Children grieve in different ways than adults because 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 how they act (behaviours) rather than words. Children may react to death by:
- becoming very attached or clingy
- having trouble sleeping or eating
- acting younger than they are (immature)
- acting out (misbehaving)
Help them find healthy ways to express themselves through art, activity, and play.
Children understand things differently 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.
Let children know that you and others will still take care of them. This lets them focus on their own grief. Make sure they understand that suicide is not a way to solve problems, and there are better ways to deal with problems.
Get help and support
Children need a lot of support and comfort when someone they know dies. It can be hard to support a grieving child when you’re 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’ll be better able to support the children in your life during this hard time. Other examples of supports 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
- You can only do your best. Do what you can, when you can. Be gentle with yourself.
- There is more than one way to support children in grief. Choose what feels most comfortable for you.
- You don’t need to be an expert to give good support.
- Get help if you or a child in your life needs help to deal with a suicide.
Everyone Grieves in Their Own Way