What to Tell Children of a Loved One’s Suicide?

Often, adults agonize over what to tell young children when somebody in the child’s family dies by suicide. The question becomes even more painful when the person who dies by suicide is the mother or father of a young child.

Some parents or other family members may want to lie to children about the cause of death. They want to protect children – protect them from blaming themselves and from asking the same devastating questions that plague adult survivors of suicide: What could I have done differently? Why did they leave me? Why was I not a good enough reason to stay alive?

Family members who cover up a suicide have good intentions, but their secrecy and deception can cause unintentional harm. By lying about suicide, adults invalidate children’s reality, perpetuate the stigma of suicide, and leave children alone with a truth that they may discover elsewhere, like from other kids in the neighborhood.

For these reasons, and more, mental health professionals and many survivors of suicide themselves widely agree that children should be told the truth, no matter how sad and painful the truth is:

Truth about suicide

“With children, honesty about suicide is not only the best policy, it is the only policy. You must tell your children the truth in an age-appropriate manner from the beginning, no matter how young they are,”  according to Michael F. Myers, a psychiatrist, and Carla Fine, both of whom are survivors of suicide. 

Children are exquisitely sensitive to their environments. In cases where adults withhold the truth, children may sense that they are being lied to, adding to feelings of betrayal and grief.

The important thing when talking to children about suicide is to tell the full truth. This means not just denying that suicide occurred. It also means giving the full context of why suicide occurs – because the person’s mind is sick or stressed and causes them to make sad, painful decisions that they would not otherwise make.

Suicide can seem like the ultimate, permanent abandonment for a child. Children need to understand that they did not cause the suicide. They also need to know that they could not have prevented it.

When Spalding Gray, an accomplished writer and performance artist, died by suicide, his wife told her children, “Suicide is an unhealthy state of mind versus a healthy state. That their father’s suicide was not done to them, that he killed himself to end his feelings of pain, not to cause pain to them.” 

In another case, the father of young children struggled how to tell them that their mother had died by suicide. In a meeting with his therapist and his wife’s family, the family told the children that their mom had died of a “brain attack”:

That is, the depression clouded her thinking and she was unable to see any other way to solve her problem, likening suicide to a heart attack in which one’s heart fails to function properly.” 

Sad girl suicideAnother important concern for children is to give them space to voice their reactions to the suicide – all of those reactions. Many times, children blame the suicide entirely on themselves. They may have said something mean to the person who died or even wished for the person to die. It is important to allow the child to talk freely about his or her feelings of self blame.

The child may feel very angry with the adult who died by suicide, and he or she needs to receive the message that such anger is not only acceptable, but also normal. Whatever feelings the child experiences, he or she needs to be heard.

That is the experts’ advice in a nutshell: Children need to be told about a loved one’s suicide, and they need to be heard, as well.

© 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Photos purchased from Fotolia.com.

Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, is the author of “Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals,” a psychotherapist and consultant, and an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

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  1. Amy-faith says:

    I have been cutting myself and my friends want me to stop but i can’t now the boy who i like told me that his sister started to cut her self too she is my friend and she wants to stop how can she do that. p.s i don’t want to stop

    • Chevy Chase says:

      Cutting or other self-caused pain releases feel-good endorphins in a person’s brain. (The pain triggers dopamine, etc)
      With cutting, one becomes attached not only to the release of these endorphins, but also to the ritual itself.
      If I were in such a place, I would try to slowly replace cutting with a healthy activity that gives you a similar release. A friend of mine successfully switched over to intense Shibari (Japanese rope art/bondage), as it gave her an even better release. In the meantime, make sure your friend isn’t cutting too deep, and have them watch for signs of infection.
      *I am not a doctor, these are my own, personal beliefs.
      Good luck, be well.

  2. ML says:

    Today is the anniversary of my father’s suicide. It’s been forty-two years since I lost the love of my life at 8 years of age.

    Early morning phone calls were not the norm. We all rushed into my mother’s bedroom, curious. She hadn’t had time to process the news herself, so when she attempted to tell us about my father’s broken heart, my 9-year-old sister asked if he’d had a heart attack. Mom just went with it.

    Fast forward twelve years, a conversation with a co-worker sparked something that got me to confront my mother. I finally learned the truth. I was devastated. I have no idea how I managed to get to work that evening. I cried every day for a month, at least. The guy I’d met 4-5 months earlier noticed the difference in me but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I wouldn’t have blamed him for giving up on me.

    I have three defining moments in my life:
    1971 – parents split and dad becomes a Sunday dad
    1976 – dad dies of a heart attack
    1988 – dad dies of a self-inflicted wound

    That secret is ongoing. Very few people in my life are privy to this skeleton in my closet. I went to therapy for a short while and it seemed to help but it was a financial strain, so I suffer in silence. Well, not really in silence: my spouse of 30 years (that same guy I mentioned above) is going to be awarded a medal. How he’s still around, I’ll never know. I generally push people away, including my mother and sisters whom I haven’t spoken to in years.

    I have no idea when and how my sisters learned and how their daily lives have been affected by it. We’ve never talked about it.

    Shame, secrets, lies.

    • Rosanne says:

      Wow, this is so similar to my experience! My Dad died by suicide when I was 6. He worked out of town and I was sleeping with my Mom one morning when there was a knock on the door. I remember seeing 4 of my aunts and uncles in the door window and my Mom saying “no” and starting to cry. After that, I remember bits and parts. One of my aunts told me he was dead and I wouldn’t see him again. Most of all, I remember feeling like they were hiding something and I thought it was probably because I did something wrong. I was told my Dad was sick and died in the mines. Fast forward to 14 years and having a conversation with my Mom about how other family members died and I asked her how my Dad died. She broke down and told me she had been waiting for me to ask. When she told me about his suicide, it was grieving all over again. It continues to be a struggle some days, although it has gotten better. She actually wanted to tell me when it happened but my paternal grandma didn’t want her to because she was afraid I would do the same as my Dad. I have spent my entire life feeling like I was lied to, even before I was told the truth. I just sensed it. To this day, I have never trusted one person entirely in my life. Kids sense the unsaid. Be honest with them on an age appropriate level!! I hope you are feeling better these days, but I understand.

    • Kimberlee says:

      ML, Thank you for your brutal honesty. And for your courage and strength.
      I would like to use your comment, in its entirety, in a handbook for Survivors. ~Kimberlee

  3. Anonymous says:

    So, my step daughter asked why she doesn’t ever see her uncle (who committed suicide). I told her her uncle is no longer with us because he hurt himself and if I know my brother he’d be regretting it every day now looking down on us. He was very sad and I wish he knew how many people around him would have loved him through it. I told her a year ago to date, and her mother is now mad about this, but was not then. I just want a professionals opinion. Did I explain wrong?

  4. Monica Quinn says:

    I dont agree. I dont think a seven year old boy can grasp or absorb that information. The message that goes out is…Daddy didnt love us. A parent will find the age appropriate age when the child can.process the information. It’s wrong.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      I know, it seems scary for a child to know their parent died by suicide. As you note, it’s very possible that the child will think, “Daddy didn’t love me.” However, the surviving parent can make clear that this is not the case. The article draws from some good examples of how to do so. In particular, I like the case where the family told the child that the parent had suffered a sort of “brain attack,” in which the illness of depression caused the suicide.

      Keep in mind that the experts also say to tell children in an age-appropriate way. So, with a young child, the surviving parent might tell a child that their other parent died of an illness called depression.

  5. D says:

    One of the people who come to mind when I’m considering suicide, is my 3 year old nephew. He loves me so much, and I him. I would never want my sister to have to tell him that I was so sad that I ended up making the pain go away. I can imagine him going to his room and just sitting there, silent. Then eventually crying and asking questions and giving his opinions.
    Family is the only reason I won’t go through with killing myself.

    • Debra says:

      I’m sorry you consider suicide, I hope someone is helping you with that. I pray you learn to love yourself and find happiness and peace.

  6. elijah says:

    hello, my name Elijah i am 13 and there is just to many things going on at my school i just want to be free from all of this mental and phisical pain

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Elijah, please ask someone for help! Please tell your parents. Tell a teacher at school. Tell anyone. And if that person does not help, tell someone else. Please. There are other ways to be free of mental and physical pain – or, at least, to learn to cope and feel better in spite of such pain – besides ending your life.

      If you live in North America, you can start with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 (TALK). I hope you will at least call them. What do you have to lose?

      • Anonymous says:

        I called them and they helped the police track me and then I was imprisoned against my will to a mental institution for 12 days before being released and handed a bill for $23,000

    • Anonymous says:

      Please dont…my son commited suicide 5 years ago and i can not recover from his loss. Please reach out to your parents or call a hotline to help you through this. Things will get better, i promise.

    • Anonymous says:

      You need help kid. Reach out for help. Life is beautiful.

    • Anonymous says:

      Please don’t do it. You have something to offer the world. Even if you don’t realize it.

  7. tralou says:

    This is so true. My husband died of suicide a year ago and I had to tell our 8 year old son. I didn’t hide it from him. He came to view Tom’s body with me and his big sister and we decorated his white coffin with messages and pictures of dinosaurs drawn with sharpies. The funeral was child centred, all decisions that my children wanted to make were made – including choosing the music and ordering a huge chocolate cake to be made. I don’t regret my honesty and openness with them one little bit and I honestly think that it has helped them deal with the most awful loss.

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