Helping your child understand a suicide

There are about 36,000 suicides in the United States each year. Each one leaves behind suicide survivors — the loved ones who must deal with the unique grief that comes when a family member has taken his own life.

When children are among the survivors, it’s important that you help them process their emotions. Here’s how.

Losing a loved one to suicide is a gut-wrenching thing. It’s sudden but so personal. The survivors — those who are left behind — deal with an array of emotions as they go through the stages of grief.

For mom of two, Julia*, losing her uncle to suicide put her in a very dark place. “I was one of only a few people in my family who knew how my uncle died, and that was a hard load to bear,” says Julia. While her parents held back the information from her younger siblings and most other family members, Julia felt like she had no one to understand what she was feeling.

“After my uncle’s death, I dealt with a tremendous amount of guilt,” says Julia. ”Since it was a big family secret, I really didn’t have the family support that is crucial for healing.”

Should parents hold back the circumstances of death with kids?

“Children should always be told the truth about a suicide. There are many reasons for this,” says Dr. Dee Shepherd-Look, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University—Northridge. “Children don’t need to be told the gory details of things. They need to be told in the context of age/relationship.”

What about at school?

It’s OK to give kids the words to talk about the death without talking about the suicide aspect, says Shepherd-Look. “Role play so they have an answer ready.”

A few options?

  • “You know, we really don’t know. We’re not sure what caused his death or why he died.”
  • “He died because his heart stopped beating.”

Shepherd-Look says that parents need to remember who they are speaking with and explain the suicide in terms the child can understand. “I don’t believe that secrets can be kept in families. Children overhear things. They may see something on TV. They may hear a parent talking on the phone,” says Shepherd-Look. “The most important thing that a parent has with their children is a trust. I think it’s really important for parents to maintain that trust.”

Though a suicide is a painful reality to live through, by being honest with kids about it, you allow them to learn how to cope. “There is an incredible amount of learning that happens when something is very difficult,” says Shepherd-Look.

What about you?

In the aftermath of a suicide, it’s not just your kids who grieve — it’s you too. And it’s OK to share your feelings with your kids, says Shepherd-Look. You can tell your children that you are confused by what your loved one did and also explain that she didn’t feel like she could talk to people or resolve her issues — and also reinforce that your children can always talk anything out with you.

Ultimately, you are all in it together and can help each other process and grieve the loss.

*Note: Name changed to protect privacy at interviewee’s request.

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