It is important that children and young adults who have been bereaved by suicide receive support and care as they understand what has happened and grieve for their loss. It can feel difficult to know what to do for the best – our protective instincts mean that we want to avoid causing them further pain. The task may be made harder by your own grief and the fear that you will not be able to say the right things or be able to understand and meet your child’s needs.
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When children learn that someone decided to die, similar problems of comprehension arise as they do for adults; questions that are difficult when a death is “natural” or even caused by another become even more difficult and painful to answer when the death is by suicide – “how did it happen?” or “why?”. You may also fear that by talking about the suicide that you are putting frightening ideas into their heads.
Telling the truth
Honesty is widely recognised to be the best approach. This does not mean giving every detail but gently providing enough information, in a language that they understand to enable them to understand what has happened and to ask the questions that they need to.
Children need to know that they can trust us. You may be tempted to hide the truth, perhaps because you think it will be better for them or because it is too painful for you to share. But it is often difficult to keep the truth hidden and it may be revealed later, perhaps in an insensitive or thoughtless way – possibly even in the playground.
It may also be tempting to try and convince children that they had a different experience to reality – for example that they didn’t see the paramedics, that they imagined it – because we want to try and protect them. But this can be confusing for the child and may mean that they avoid talking about how they are feeling.
Children are likely to experience new worries after a suicide – fear that others will leave them, fear that suicide runs in the family, fear that it was their fault. They need to be supported and reassured by people they trust – and a lack of honesty, however well intended, could damage their confidence in you.
How much to tell them?
This will depend on the individual child and circumstances surrounding the death. You will probably need to explain what has happened in stages, being patient with them as they understand at their own pace. You may need to repeat certain conversations, possibly over the course of many months or years as the child reflects, thinks and develops. Don’t assume that silence means that they don’t have questions, thoughts or feelings. It may be difficult but you may need to create some opportunities for them to talk about their emotions and fears. They may also avoid talking because they are worried about upsetting you – you need to create a space where you can make this okay and you can grieve together.
One of the most important things to help your child understand is that it was not their fault and that they are in no way to blame for what happened.
The young persons bereavement charity Winstons Wish offers guidance about talking with children and young people about suicide including how to break the conversation into stages and ways you might respond in specific circumstances.
How much will they understand?
Children as young as two often have some understanding of death but don’t necessarily understand that they are “gone forever” until around the age of five. They may expect the person who died to come back sometime – and as the period of absence increases, so does the child’s feeling of insecurity.
From the ages of five to nine, children may have a clearer understanding that death is forever but may struggle to understand that this can happen to them and their family. Older children and young adults will understand that death is irreversible and may have a greater awareness of the circumstances surrounding the death. They will try to cope with events and face some of the similar challenges to adults.
Children will react and cope differently but be prepared for some changes in their behaviour as they try to adapt to what has happened. They may feel many of the same emotions and reactions as adults do – grief, anger, anxiety, guilt – and may try different ways to find security or seek attention. For example they may become clingy, revert to baby speak, hide or run away, withdraw to their room, behave aggressively or copy behaviours of the dead person. Sometimes you may be hurt or frustrated by their behaviour but it is important to remember that they are doing it to try and find a way to cope. Be patient and do what you can to make them feel safe.
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You should talk with your children about the funeral and opportunities to view the body – let them know what will be happening and what choices they can make. Reassure them that whatever choice they make is okay.
For some children attending the funeral or seeing the body can be an important step in understanding and coming to terms with the death. Help them to understand what to expect and agree how you will support them so that they know they will be safe. If they do decide to attend, you may wish to talk with the funeral director, the person leading the funeral or other relatives and friends so that they can also be supportive.
“I wanted to see him to make his death seem real to me. And knowing my imagination, I thought what I imagined might be much worse than what he actually looked like – what the rope had done to him and so on. I didn’t want to be left with a terrible picture that wasn’t real”
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Children may face a number of challenges when they return to school. They may struggle to concentrate in class, homework may be difficult and some topics may be challenging for them. Worst of all they may need to cope with thoughtless or malicious comments from other children. This will be made even worse if you have not been truthful about what happened.
It helps if you can talk with the school staff about what has happened and share with your child what you have told them so that they know. Some schools may have a specific teacher who provides bereavement support. Agree with your child what they should do if they have any concerns whilst they are at school to give them reassurance that they will be safe.
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It is natural to worry about your children after a suicide, in particular if the person who died was one of your children. You may lose some confidence in your parenting abilities. You may become over protective or excessively anxious about them. These are normal reactions and you should look for support in raising your family – you are not alone. Partners, family and friends can be a great source of support and there are number of organisations who can connect you with others who have been in similar situations.
It is important to remember that we all react, grieve and cope differently and whilst it may seem to you that they are not responding to what has happened, they may simply be finding their own way of dealing with the situation. In particular it can be difficult to support adolescents, a time when communication and relationships are often already strained in normal circumstances.
Find out more about organisations who can provide specialist support and services to families, children and young adults. We provide information to help adults who are supporting children, but our services are only available to people older than 18 .