Talking to children about suicide

If you find yourself having to explain suicide to a child, you may be wondering about the best way to do it.

Michigan State University Extension recognizes that most adults find suicide very upsetting and frightening. However, if you find yourself having to explain suicide to a child, you may be wondering about the best way to do it.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention outlines some practical guidelines:

Telling the Truth

If someone dies of an illness such as cancer or heart attack, you’d intuitively know what to say: “He died of a serious illness.” Similarly, it’s important to keep in mind that the research shows that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable (although not always identified) brain illness at the time of their death, most often depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, often complicated by substance abuse. Just as people die of heart disease or cancer, they can die as a complication of a psychiatric illness.

Psychiatric illnesses can cause terrible suffering and desperate hopelessness. These illnesses can also effect a person’s ability to make appropriate decisions such as whether to seek help, continue treatment or take prescribed medication. We need to begin to see suicide as a tragic outcome of a serious illness, rather than as a moral weakness, a character flaw, irresponsibility or a hostile act, it will become easier to talk about openly and with compassion.

Talking openly about suicide will not increase the risk that others will go on to take their own lives. In fact, like a death from any other serious illness, suicide is now part of the family’s history. Knowing the truth about mental illness and suicide enables all surviving family members to be appropriately vigilant about their own health going forward and take preventative steps.

Although it’s understandable that adults naturally wish to protect children from pain or bad news, shielding children from the truth can undermine trust and create a legacy of secrecy and shame. You protect your children best by offering comfort, reassurance and honest answers to their questions.

Where to start

Let the child lead the conversation. Answer questions honestly, being careful to avoid euphemisms (such as “passed away” or “went to a better place”), which will confuse kids. Here are some examples of honest answers:

  • He was probably suffering from an illness in his brain that made him confused, and he didn’t know he could get help.
  • I don’t know, I wish I knew the answer.
  • You’ll need to ask your mom/dad that question.

Children may not want to talk much at all, but like adults, they may worry that the suicide was somehow their fault. Reassure them that they are not responsible, and that nothing they said or did caused it. Let them know, too, that everyone has their own way of coping. Acknowledge their feelings when they say things like, “It makes me really sad,” “I’m also really angry,” or “I can’t believe this has happened.”

Use simple but truthful language. Here are some examples:

  • She died of suicide. Suicide means she killed herself.
  • He had a very serious illness in his brain. The illness is called depression. It’s very different from just having a bad day.
  • The illness in his brain caused him to feel confused, hopeless, and make very bad decisions.
  • Maybe he didn’t know how to get help or didn’t know any other way to stop the pain.
  • Suicide is complicated. We will never know exactly what went through her mind or what she was feeling. I do know she must have been in terrible pain.

Now what?

Children grieve differently than adults. You may find that they want to have the conversation in several “doses,” asking additional questions over a period of time.

Be prepared to talk about the suicide multiple times during the next days and weeks, and indeed throughout the child’s life. You can open the door to this continuing dialogue by saying things like, “You may choose to talk to me now or later about how you’re feeling, and if you want to ask more questions, I will be available to you. It may be hard to figure out what you need right now, but we will figure this out together.”

Children may behave in a seemingly perplexing manner. They may seem unfazed by the news of suicide, or they may want to go on as if nothing dramatic happened. This “denial” may simply mean that they need time to process the loss. Be assured that they don’t have to talk in order to heal.

It is important for you to invite their questions, which may arise at random times. It may be helpful for you to make a point of “checking in” with them periodically, and to be sure to make time alone with them in the hectic aftermath of a death.

Consider finding a bereavement group for your kids (or yourself). You can find groups through community mental health centers, hospitals or Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families.

Providing truthful information, encouraging questions, and offering loving reassurance to your children, can allow your family to find strength to cope with this terrible loss.