Talking to children about a suicide loss

Children and young people have different ways of responding to the loss of a loved one compared to adults. A child’s understanding of death is related to age, verbal ability and cognitive development.

Being honest and helping a grieving child feel safe is very important.

Grieving children may not always have the words to talk about what they are experiencing and will generally learn to grieve by watching and learning from adults. If you are having trouble with your own grief try seeking support so you can help your child find ways to constructively express their emotions.

It might be harder to truthfully talk about the death of a loved one following suicide without leaving some information out. But not being honest can mean they may fill in the gaps with their imagination or half-truths they hear from others, which can lead to bigger issues, like anxiety.

Clear and honest communication reassures children that someone will take care of them physically and emotionally. It also creates a renewed sense of safety, security and trust.

Understanding death and suicide

There are three concepts important for a child to understand:

  • Death is irreversible and final; it is not 'a trip' from which they will return.
  • In death, life and body functions stop; the person is not asleep.
  • Death is inevitable; everyone will die eventually.

Most children will understand these concepts by the age of nine years. Children who are bereaved before the age of seven are likely to come to a partial understanding of death.

Common grief responses in children and young people

Behavioural

  • more dependent, clingy; not wanting to go to school, wanting to sleep with parents, needing extra help or attention.
  • withdrawal, themes of death in their stories, drawings or play.
  • tears, mood changes
  • intolerance of others, resentment, disjointed conversations
  • restlessness, erratic decision making, risk-taking behaviour.

Social

  • isolation, withdrawal
  • substance abuse.

Cognitive

  • shortened concentration span, confusion, difficulty in making decisions, lack of self-esteem
  • repeated disturbing imagery, nightmares
  • confusion, forgetfulness, poor concentration
  • sense of unreality, racing mind.

Emotional

  • disbelief, rejection, numbness, sadness,
  • betrayal, abandonment, anger, fear, guilt
  • panic, helplessness, desire to be an innocent child again, anxiety about others dying.
  • numbness, helplessness,
  • sadness, anger, anxiety, regret, guilt, blame, fear, betrayal.

Physical

  • tiredness, lack of energy, hyperactivity, restlessness, sleeping changes.
  • headaches, stomach aches, nervousness, appetite changes,
  • change in appetite, nausea.
  • change in sleeping, tiredness,
  • headaches, colds.

Spiritual

  • questioning, searching for understanding; “why did this happen?”, “where are they now?”, “are they going to come back?”, “why did they have to die?” “will I die?”
  • ‘why me?’, loss of meaning, questioning faith, challenging beliefs, desolation, yearning, searching for understanding.
How do I support a grieving child/young person?

Do:

  • provide a safe space and be patient
  • have a regular routine, be consistent
  • include and involve the child in appropriate decision making and in what is happening
  • acknowledge feelings and give support when they are overwhelming
  • provide opportunities share memories of the person that has died, create a memory book or journey, draw, paint, write stories, poems or collect photos
  • prepare for special occasions – birthdays, Mother's day, Father's day, start of school, etc. 
  • give comfort, hugs and reassurance
  • prepare them for any further change that may be approaching
  • make time for just being together, take time out, re-establish recreational activities and outings as soon as you can.
  • sit quietly with the young person while they talk, cry or are silent
  • reassure the person that grief is a normal and there is no wrong/right way to grieve
  • use language that is familiar, easily understood and comfortable for you both.
  • be honest and reassuring: use the words 'dead' or 'death'
  • give adequate and age appropriate information
  • be available to listen and assist with any concerns your child may have
  • ·validate for them that this can be a confusing time for adults as well as children.

Don’t:

  • put a limit on the process of healing. Be available some time down the track
  • panic in the absence or presence of strong emotional responses 
  • ignore or neglect your own grief and/or feeling of helplessness
  • be judgemental with their views, responses, or what they say
  • use ‘committed suicide’ or euphemisms such as 'sleeping forever' or 'left us...' - these phrases cause confusion for children
  • answer their questions with unnecessary details or long-winded explanations.
How do I support a grieving child at school?

Meet with the child's teacher and talk about what has happened. It is important to:

  • Ensure the teacher has correct and appropriate information about the death.
  • Appropriately inform the class; decide how and when this will happen. Give your child an opportunity to be involved in this decision as it provides a sense of control.
  • Develop a support process with the teacher in case the child gets distressed, e.g. phone the parent/ guardian, taking the child to a quiet place in the school.
  • Check in with the teacher to discuss their observations, see how the child is coping and share ways of supporting the child.
  • Inform the teacher of any significant occasions (anniversaries, birthdays, etc.)

Crisis support

If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include:

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