Explaining to a child or teenager that someone has died by suicide is one of the most difficult situations that a parent might ever face. It is a natural reaction with any death to want to hide away from the outside world, but with a death from suicide you are much more likely to have to deal with outsiders e.g. Gardaí, Coroner or media.

As the story of what has happened can quickly become public knowledge it is best to be open and honest from the start, difficult and all as that may seem. It is normal to want to protect our children and it is important to let them know they can trust you. It is important to be aware of the following:

  • A child is never too young to know the truth.
  • Avoid keeping secrets or telling lies.
  • Avoid unnecessary details – there is no need to be graphic at this point.
  • If at all possible a parent is the best person to tell their children this difficult news. If this is not possible it is important to try and have a parent present when someone else they know and trust
    tells them.
  • If you have already given your child a different explanation for the death than suicide, it is possible to go back and explain things again.

Research and experience shows that there may be five stages involved in telling a child or teenager that someone has died by suicide – these could happen in the space of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months or even years. This will depend on the age and developmental understanding of the child, their relationship to the deceased, experience of other deaths.

The 5 stages may be:

  1. Explaining that the person has died.
  2. Giving simple details about how they died.
  3. Saying that the person ended their own life.
  4. Providing a more detailed explanation of how the person died.
  5. Explaining possible reasons why the person took their own life, while bearing in mind that there may be things that will never be known.

There is no set way to tell a child or teenager something as difficult as the fact that someone they know died by suicide. Breaking it into the 5 steps mentioned above may make it more manageable for you and you can pace it to suit your child or teenager.

  • Encourage children to ask questions – this will inform you about what they are thinking and how they’re dealing with the death. It is okay not to have answers to all questions. It is okay to say “I don’t know“.
  • You can explain and discuss the changes the death brings to the family unit.
  • In the case of a parental death, a very important thing to stress is that the parent did not die because they no longer loved their child or teenager.
  • It is important to be aware that it is normal that children and teenagers may worry about their other parent/relatives/siblings doing the same thing.
  • Reassure the child or teenager that there was nothing s/he had done or said – or not done or not said – that made this happen.
  • Listening to and encouraging children or teenagers to express all of their emotions will help them come to terms with their loss in time.
  • Trust yourself and your instincts – you know your child best.
  • It is best for the child or teenager to be told by a person
    they know and trust.
  • Use simple, clear language and avoid phrases like “gone to sleep“, “passed on” or “committed” suicide.
  • Allow space for the child or teenager to ask questions.
  • Try and answer truthfully in a way that is appropriate to their age.
  • Let them know it is okay to talk about the person who has died.
  • Continue with normal routines, let them know they can play and do normal things (have fun & laugh) and reassure them about the future e.g. planned holidays, birthday parties.
  • Show the child how you are feeling; it helps them to know that it’s okay to have different feelings.
  • Accept that some things cannot be made better in a short space of time.
  • Talk to children using words they understand and ask questions to check they understand you.
  • Be honest and consistent.
  • Be aware that children and teenagers have different needs and their ability to understand what is going on will vary. Bear this in mind when talking with them about what has happened, as a result you may decide to talk with them separately.

There are a wide variety of feelings and thoughts that adults, children and teenagers can experience when bereaved by suicide e.g. numbness, shock, disbelief, guilt, anger, relief, rejection & betrayal, shame & blame. Please refer to the handouts on The Grieving Process and Bereaved by Suicide for further explanation on these.

Grieving a suicide is very public and we may be very sensitive to people’s reactions to us. We also have a need to make sense of the death, asking why, remembering the last times spent together and last conversations. Children and teenagers have similar needs and may have many questions and adults need to ensure we respond to their needs as they arise at different stages.

Death is a part of life. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for. Given TIME & SUPPORT most people come to terms with very difficult situations. Trust yourself and your instincts, you haven’t forgotten how to be a parent and you know your child better than anyone.

Extended family, friends and teachers are all very important sources of support for children and teenagers. There are also specific supports available for them e.g. HSE Psychology, Barnardos, Winston’s Wish. Please refer to the handout on ‘Supports and Services’ for further details.

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