Talking with children
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.
Telling the truth
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.