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How to explain suicide to your child

Many child psychologists use the term "magical thinking" to describe how young children understand the world. If a suicide has occurred in your family, be aware that for a child who is confronted with the reality of death for the first time by the suicide of a loved one, your child may have a distorted view of reality. This is the same way that children enter the fantasy world of Peter Pan or Alice In Wonderland. The same way a child might say "It's raining because I am sad," he might also say, "My brother died because I was mad at him."

The grief and sadness that you feel is also felt by your child but with one important difference; you're an adult, and you process feelings about death as an adult. Your child is unable to do this and needs your help. For children, grieving is just as important as it is with adults. The abrupt nature of suicide gives no one a chance to prepare for their loved one's death. "Mama, how come Daddy died?" is a child's way of asking for closure – some final resolution of why their loved one has gone away from them.

It's always best to tell the truth

Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children from harm and pain. But telling children falsehoods about death and grief, or responding to their questions in an evasive or babyish manner can be misleading for them and may only serve to destroy your child's trust in you, his/her only source of understanding how the world works. Keeping your child's trust is the most important part of maintaining a close, honest bond together. Withholding the truth from children makes them wonder what else you may be keeping from them! In the case of suicide, parents or care givers may be in such shock and sadness themselves that they cannot emotionally reach out to the child who, at the time, may seem almost "invisible." The worst mistake you can make is to exclude your children from the grieving process. Do not be afraid that you will make things worse; after all, the worst has already happened. With good intentions, you may find yourself shielding a child from the one thing that helps them best cope with what is happening to them – the truth. 

Encourage children to talk about their feelings

Mental health professionals agree that after any tragic event, children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings of bewilderment, shock, disbelief, sadness, guilt and anger just as adults do. One way you can explain suicide to your grieving child is to talk in general about how death comes to everyone. We may die by illness or accident, or old age. Children can usually understand that suicide is when the person who died made themselves die. Most professionals agree that it is best to refrain from details unless your child asks for them. If your child asks, tell the truth. "Daddy shot himself" or "Your brother took too many pills." Tell your child that the deceased person loved him/her very much and that the suicide is not their fault. If suicide has occurred more than once in the family, he or she may have an irrational fear that "the same thing will happen to me". Reassure your child that this is not the case.

We all know kids can be cruel. Young children have not developed the social skills needed to appropriately cope with something as complicated as suicide. They may face comments at school from peers who are unwittingly or in some cases purposefully cruel. Try to help your child handle these comments, don't let such words fester and exaggerate the child's feelings of shame.

Most children who are old enough will eventually ask "why." One way to explain suicide to your child is by encouraging understanding that our thoughts and feelings come from our brains. And sometimes our brains become troubled and our thoughts get jumbled up and confused. It may help your child to know that only a few people feel bad enough to kill themselves and usually people can get help when their brain is confused. Some people just feel so much pain that nothing can help them.

Professionals advise parents to use age-appropriate language when talking with a child about suicide, death and grief and to steer clear of moral explanations like right/wrong, good/bad etc. These concepts are difficult for children to manage, both intellectually and emotionally.

Letting go does not mean forgetting

Finally, help your child say good-bye and to find a "place" for what they have lost. Family photo-books, memory boxes, life books, DVDs etc. are helpful to create a visual remembrance. A family project of creating these keepsakes can help everyone heal after a suicide. Some children have a hard time viewing a body, but rituals, celebrations and visiting grave sites are usually helpful for them in their grieving process. Young survivors find great comfort and reassurance in hearing that they too will heal from their grief, and that they will begin to feel better over time.

Your child may be vulnerable to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach upsets and sleep disorders. He/she may need to stay home with you occasionally and may experience "setbacks" in their grief recovery just as adults do. Some children respond better than others to professional therapy. Although group and play therapy have proved helpful for many young survivors, it's always best to include your child in any decision about outside intervention.

Don't be afraid to face suicide and the grieving process directly and honestly with your child. Listen to those unique questions, laugh with them when possible and remember that letting go does not mean forgetting. Children who are meeting death for the first time with a suicide should not feel ashamed of their loved one. Leave out the pictures, keep a few favorite reminders lying around the house and let your child pick out a few things that will bring back pleasant memories of the person they are grieving for. Most importantly, help your child survivor of suicide understand that he/she is not alone and will always be loved and cared for, no matter what.

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Further sources of information

You may find our other articles in the Suicide: dealing with the aftermath and Children: helping a child cope with death sections helpful too.

Visit our Amazon store to find books on how to cope after a suicide.

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