In The Know Zone

Explaining Suicide to Children

This certainly ranks among the most terrible prospects a parent can face. The age, maturity and emotional resilience of the child, his or her relationship with the deceased, and many other considerations will factor into your approach to this painful subject, but there is one hard and fast rule: DO NOT LIE!

If you lie to “protect” the child from a hurtful truth, you will almost certainly regret it. The child will learn the truth, eventually, and your well-intentioned lie will severely undermine your future credibility on serious matters. The child may also feel compelled to honor the lie after discovering the truth. This may cause him or her to repress the feelings the event evokes, delaying or crippling his ability to deal with the reality of the situation.

If the child is too young to understand the concept of depression, an explanation like this might help: “He had a very serious sickness in his brain that made him so sad he didn’t want to live any more.”

Children tend to personalize all experiences, and they need reassurance that suicide is a very rare event, and not something likely to befall them.

Adults tend to think of early childhood, in particular, as a sunny and rather oblivious period in life, and attribute great resilience to children. In truth, children harbor as many dark, frightening and angry thoughts as adults – if not more. And they are even more vulnerable to severe emotional distress. They simply lack the adult’s mechanisms for expressing it. This may lead to what adults perceive as “inappropriate” responses – behaving as if nothing has happened, unprovoked outbursts of anger, or extreme withdrawal. Criticizing such behavior will only deepen the child’s insecurity and pain. The only appropriate response is to make sure the child understands that he or she has your loving support, and an attentive ear to whatever he is willing to talk about regarding the pain, loss, fear and guilt he, too, is experiencing..

It is commonplace for young children with no real understanding of death to declare in a moment of anger that they wish a parent or sibling dead. If that person subsequently dies, the child may be devastated by the belief that he or she actually caused the death by wishing it. Children – like adults – are also likely to feel that they could somehow have prevented the death. They must understand that they are in no way responsible for the deceased’s decision and act.

In your own pain and anger, you may be tempted to demonize the deceased to the child, to accuse him or her of abandoning you, suggesting that you and the child are co-victims of a malicious act. Such a response may be understandable, and even therapeutic for the adult, but it could be emotionally devastating to the child, who already harbors feelings of abandonment, anger and guilt.

Be sure in explaining the death to a child that you make it clear that the deceased was not a bad person, but a deeply depressed person who made a bad choice.

Children should also be made to understand that not everyone who feels very sad or falls ill will die from it. He or she should be assured that there are doctors and others who can help

Communication is all-important. Children recovering from the shock of a suicide need to be regularly reassured that they can talk and ask questions about any aspect of the death that concerns them. And they need to be assured that they will not always feel the way they do now. [32] , [33] , [34]

[32] Pierson, Tracy, Explaining Suicide to Children, Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education, 1996, available at Accessed 6/4/04.

[33] Jackson, Jeffrey, SOS: A Handbook for Survivors of Suicide, p. 6

[34] Wolfelt, Alan D., Helping a Survivor Heal

In The Know: At Risk Pamphlet/ DVD Package
In The Know: At Risk DVD Package