Often, we try to protect children from difficult times and issues, but research suggests that it can help a child if they’re involved in conversations around suicide, loss and grief.
When talking to a child about suicide, try to be honest, open, and understanding.
Top tips for communicating with a child about a suicide
- Be honest – keeping secrets or hiding information can cause problems later down the line.
- Be consistent – inconsistent information may make the child feel like they’re being lied to.
- Encourage questions – answer them honestly, including telling them if you don’t know the answer.
- Tell them as soon as possible – withholding information leaves room for them to find out from another source or for rumours to develop.
- Use age-appropriate language – matching your language to their comprehension level can really help them process and understand what’s happening.
Talking to and being honest with a child builds trust, and it will save them asking questions in future.
Who should tell the child about a suicide?
It is usually best if the child is told about a suicide by an adult that they trust. This ensures that they will feel more able to talk, ask questions and express their feelings. The person might be a parent, guardian, grandparent, other close family member or a close friend.
What should the child be told?
Every situation is different, and the specific level of detail provided to a child should be decided by the person talking to them. However, here is a suggested list of areas its useful to cover during the conversation based on best-practice guidance:
- clarify that the person has died by suicide, and that this isn’t a shameful or bad thing;
- outline what’s going to happen now (e.g. an inquest, funeral etc.);
- ask if they have questions and answer them (as appropriate), and if you don’t know the answer, tell them so. There is some guidance on preparing for questions below
- inform them about the support that’s available and how to access it;
- tell them that it’s okay to feel a range of emotions and these are normal;
- be honest that it may impact their day-to-day life and talk about what those impacts might be.
Based on the child’s age and maturity, you can consider talking about more complex topics, including:
- how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling this way;
- ways in which you’re going to grieve;
- ideas on how they may want to grieve or remember the person.
Preparing for questions
There are likely to be questions, so it’s useful to be prepared. It’s up to the person talking to the child to decide how much detail to provide. If someone’s not sure, it can be best not to give too much specific detail in these early stages and to provide time later for further conversation. Some common questions include:
- Why did they take their own life?
- How did it happen?
- Were they depressed?
- Is this common?
- Will this happen to other people?
Similar to adults, children who lose someone to suicide may find it difficult or have additional needs to come to terms with the loss.
There is further guidance on losing someone you know to suicide and this provides more information about how anyone might react.
For a more in-depth level of advice and guidance on supporting a child after a suicide, you can use the handbook designed by the Children and Young People’s Empowerment Project called ‘Walk With Us’.
Looking after yourself
This is likely to be a difficult or worrying time for you, so it is important that you actively look after yourself, maybe talk to someone or seek your own support. Further ideas of how to do this are available by clicking on ‘Sources of Support’ below