Supporting children after suicide – when a loved one has taken their own life

Updated: 16/06/17

First of all, we need to acknowledge that suicide is still a taboo subject, and many of us find it difficult to talk about suicide, and often try and avoid the subject.

When we talk to children about a loved one who has died, they need to have answers to their questions, they need honesty, and caring adults who show that they take them seriously. This also applies when someone has died because they have taken their own life.

Whilst suicide is a really difficult subject to address, it is sometimes helpful to consider what would happen if you, as a parent, did not tell your child. Your son or daughter might find out from someone else, they might see it online or hear about it through social media. Even if they are very young, they might overhear an adult conversation, or their friends at school or nursery might tell them because their parents have shared it with their children. Would it not be much better if you as a parent tell your child, in an age appropriate manner,  giving explanations and details the way you want to?

There are a number of reasons why telling children about suicide is important (Anglicare, WA)

• Children are very sensitive to change and will pick up that something is happening in their family that they don’t know about.

• Children have a rich fantasy life and may make up stories to fill up the gaps in their knowledge about their death.

• Children may overhear, be told half-truths or gory stories by their friends and neighbours. This removes control from a caring parent or other adult, who ordinarily would ensure that they are told in a sensitive and appropriate way.

• An important part of the grief process is, knowing how the person died. Not knowing this information can interfere with a child’s grieving and long-term adjustment.

• Children rely on factual information about the world in which they live from their parents and other adult caregivers. Trust is an important family value, keeping significant information like suicide from children can affect a child’s developing trust.

• Parents often express great relief that they have spoken to their children about suicide. Often the secret of suicide and trying to cover up the facts adds further stress to the family coping. Many of the fears that caregivers have about causing greater distress for their children are not realised, as most children, even very young children, take the news in a very matter of fact way.

When you talk to children, think about age appropriate ways of explaining how someone has died. You may wish to give them just some basic details at the beginning, and then answer their questions and tell them more as time goes by.

It is important that children know that they are not to blame, they are not responsible for what happened, and that they are loved by their family.

Explaining suicide can be difficult, you could say that ‘they made their own body stop working’, ‘they killed themselves’. If the person had been depressed, you could tell children that ‘they had an illness, an illness called depression. Very sadly, the medicine they took did not work, and the doctor was not able to help.‘ Being open and honest and answering their question is what is important.

It is really important to reassure children, to tell them that their parent had loved them very much. You can also tell them whilst you are feeling very sad at the moment, you will be there for your child and help and support them.

It will be really helpful if you share with your child’s school or early years setting about what happened. They can best support your child if they know what they have experienced, and how they might be feeling. They also have access to advice and training if they need it, and it is easiest for them to support you and your child if you can share with them information about what happened, how you explained that your partner has taken his/her life, and how you and your child are dealing with the bereavement.

Remember, in Norfolk you can access support for your children through Nelson’s Journey. You can also just telephone them if you need some advice on how to talk to your children about what happened: 01603 431788