How Do I Talk to my Child About a Suicide?
Talking to a child about death is not high on any parent’s list. When that death involves a suicide, the conversation becomes even more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s important not to keep the truth from your child. When they do find out (and they will), they may feel resentment at being lied to, and this makes them wonder what else you may not have been honest about.
Popular myths surrounding this topic include:
- Talking about suicide makes someone more likely to attempt suicide themselves.
No, no and no. There’s tons of research to debunk this myth, and I won’t bore you with it here. It’s the same rationale that talking to kids about sex or drugs makes them more likely to engage in those activities – not true. What they don’t know may hurt them, so talk early and often!
- Kids don’t need to know the details.
Yes and no, and this applies to discussing almost any tough topic with a child. Kids should be given information in terms they can understand. Answer their questions simply and honestly. You don’t need to elaborate on the details. If they have further questions they will ask them, and you should continue to answer them until they have all of the information that they need at that moment. They will ask more questions when they are ready for more information.
Children and teens don’t process information the same way that adults do. For one, younger kids simply don’t have the language to discuss how they feel about it. This is where play therapy and expressive arts come into the picture. A skilled play therapist can help your child process their feelings through the modality they know best – play! A therapist can also help your child to learn the words they need to be able to express their emotions. Many people assume that teenagers possess these language skills and can simply talk about their feelings and about what is bothering them. Many teens do, but teens also can struggle to sort out all of the ideas running through their heads. Incorporating art, music and physical activities into therapy will give teens different avenues to choose in order to begin the healing process.
Something I hear a lot is, “I didn’t know how to explain it to them.” I can’t fault you there. Who really plans for this conversation? The most confusing thing for a child to hear are things such as, “Daddy is sleeping now” or “Mommy is in the clouds.” To tell a child that someone is sleeping can create a fear of sleeping in general, for them and for others. “My older brother went to sleep and never woke up. I’m not sleeping anymore, and neither are you!” Or, “Let’s just wake her up, then.” Someone living in the clouds can stir up similar responses; “We could take a plane to go get them”, “If it rains will they come back down?” and so on. Children take things very literally! Here is a great resource for how to talk to kids about someone who has died by suicide.
What signs do you look for to know if they need help? If your child is withdrawn, very angry, begins to struggle in school, is unusually fearful or showing a lot of signs of regression, it may be helpful to consult with a mental health professional. All of these things are normal following a death, but left unaddressed they can snowball quickly. Sometimes just having one more supportive adult in a child’s life can make all of the difference. Especially if they know that person isn’t going to be hurt by anything they say, isn’t going to share everything they say with others and isn’t going to make them feel like they shouldn’t be feeling the way that they are.
What can you do to support a child affected by a suicide? Simply be there. Be available to talk and, more importantly, to listen. Encourage your child to ask questions, and let them know it’s ok to talk with another adult as well if they need to. It may also be helpful to share what you are telling your child with the other adults in your child’s life, so that they can relay the same information if/when asked. Some helpful suggestions can be found here.
Above all, give them the time and space they need to grieve. There is no set format for grief and how it should progress. The author of the very popular Stages of Grief never intended for those stages to be thought of as linear. Rather, they ebb and flow with life. Shock, bargaining, acceptance – all of those will come and go, and reappear from time to time. That’s ok. However it happens is how it’s supposed to happen, and having the tools and support to rely on when you and your child need it will make those moments easier.