Speaking to a child about suicide can be very confronting and worrying. The following information has been designed to provide guidance and practical advice for supporting a child bereaved by suicide.
Children tend to grieve differently from adults, often expressing their emotions in their behaviour and play.
You may notice that the child regresses to earlier behaviours like wetting the bed, thumb sucking, clinginess or fussiness. They may be disruptive or demanding of your attention. You may also see aspects of the child’s grief manifesting in their play, with repetitive games and stories, perhaps with themes of death or violence, being common.
These expressions of grief are a common part of the bereavement process for any child.
Talking about suicide
Talking to a child about the death can be a very daunting task. The following are some strategies to keep in mind when preparing for the conversation:
- You will generally be able to choose an appropriate time to talk about the death with your child. Pay attention to their behaviour and play, as they may provide cues or natural opportunities to begin the conversation.
- Make sure you have the conversation in a safe, comfortable space without distractions.
- It’s generally best to speak to the child as soon as possible. If it’s obvious that they’re not ready or don’t want to talk, don’t force it – gently let them know you’re available to talk when they’re ready.
- It can be helpful, if you feel it appropriate, to have a limited one-sided conversation, where the child is invited, but not required to participate. Run through what you would like them to know, perhaps the facts about the death, or how you or other family members are feeling at the moment. With time, the child can become a more active participant in future conversations as they begin to understand more about the death.
- Children may wonder or believe that they were responsible for the death in some way, and may feel guilty. Emphasise that the child did not cause the death.
If you are unsure or worried about speaking to a child about a suicide, seek advice. You may wish to seek counselling.
Using age-appropriate language
- It is important that the child understands what caused the death. Be honest, on a level that they can understand. Avoid details which may distress them.
- Young children may be confused about the word ‘suicide’. If this is the case, you may wish to say that the person ‘killed themselves’ or ‘made their body stop working’. Steer clear of phrases like ‘left us’ or ‘went to sleep,’ as they can provoke anxiety around sleeping or being abandoned.
- Particularly with a younger child, ask what they think being dead or suicide mean – you are then able to talk through any confusion or misunderstandings they may have.
Telling the truth about the death
It helps to be as honest about the death as is appropriate for the child’s age. The truth about the circumstances of the death will inevitably come out, and it is better that the child be told in a safe space by a trustworthy adult.
If you’ve already told a different story to your child, it’s not too late to correct this. You could explain to them that sometimes it’s difficult for adults to talk to children about death, and you weren’t sure how to tell them about it. By apologising and talking honestly about the death, you are showing them, by example, the importance of telling the truth.
After a suicide death it is common for parents or carers to worry that their children will imitate suicidal behaviour. Again, this is a chance to speak openly to your child, letting them know that the person that died was feeling very upset and unhappy. Reassure them that suicide is not common, but that sometimes people find it difficult to talk about their problems and can become very troubled and confused.
Explain to the child that ups and downs are part of life, but that it’s important that they talk about their own emotions if they’re feeling upset or troubled. It may be helpful to talk to the child about people in their life that they could talk to if they are feeling unhappy, such as a teacher, relative, family friend or other trusted adult.
The funeral or memorial service
The funeral, viewing or memorial service are an important way for friends and family, including children, to express grief, remember their loved one, and say goodbye. It is vital that the child is made to feel a part of this process. Look for ways that they can be involved in the service, perhaps by choosing a song or a reading, drawing a picture or writing about their memories of the person.
Particularly if this is the first time the child has attended a funeral, it can be helpful to talk to them about what to expect. Before you attend, make time to discuss what will happen, who will be there and where it will be. You may emphasise that it is a reflective and sad time, so people may be upset or crying – this will help them be prepared for what the service might be like.
The importance of memories
Memories are important both to help the child remember the person who died and their relationship, and also as part of the child’s grieving process.
Children may find it helpful to use creative activities to help with this process. You could look at photos or create a scrapbook with them, make a drawing or painting or plant a tree. Another useful tool is a memory box or book, with photos, written memories, poems, songs, drawings and other mementos. You and your child can look back over these to help with your grief and keep the memory of the person alive.
Going back to school after the death
Before it’s time for your child to go back to school, contact their teachers or counsellors to explain to them the circumstances of the death – don’t assume they already know. Keep in contact with the school to inform them of anniversary dates or other stressful times.
It may also be helpful to rehearse with the child what they will say to their friends or teachers, so they are better prepared.
It is critical that children’s daily routines are kept intact throughout this stressful time. Adhering to as normal a routine as possible is vital for a child to feel secure and cared for. Let them know that they are loved and will be kept safe. Reassure them too that they don’t have to feel sad all the time – it’s okay for them to play, laugh and feel happy.
Looking after yourself when supporting a child
Supporting a child when you may be grieving yourself can be an incredibly overwhelming and draining process. It is very important that you look after yourself and have adequate support around you to help you through this difficult time. Close family and friends, or professionals like counsellors or psychologists, can be invaluable during this time.