Losing a parent is always painful for a child. Suicide has its particular challenges for loved ones. The tricky part for the remaining parent is how to explain the decision. How do you explain to a child that their deceased parent did this to themselves? Many parents fear their child will feel betrayed or believe their deceased parent didn’t care for them. Understandably, they want to protect their child from this pain.
How do we talk to children about parent’s suicide?
Communicate clearly about what has happened. Clear communication helps children feel safe and secure. Some parents keep the information a secret to protect children. Children generally become aware that something is not right or that misinformation is being given. Never forget that your child is an expert in the way you communicate and will likely spot something is off. Without realistic information, children will use their imagination to complete the story and this may cause anxiety.
A trusted adult is best. If you cannot tell your child, another trusted adult is best. Your child needs someone they have an ongoing relationship to tell them. This gives your child space to explore their feelings with someone they know well and to ask more questions in time if they need to.
Use language that is familiar. Avoid using the term committed suicide. This is a legal term associated with criminality. It’s the difference between saying something like “Daddy was very sad and didn’t want to live anymore so he stopped himself breathing” as opposed to “Daddy committed suicide by hanging himself”. Avoid any unnecessary or gruesome details.
Make it clear that your child is not to blame. Children are experts at centralizing themselves to a problem. If you don’t spell it out, there is a real chance they may think the death is their fault.
What can we do to help children with their grief after suicide?
Allow your child to grieve differently. Children’s grief doesn’t look the same as adults. It tends to come and go in waves. Sometimes it may seem as though a child has forgotten about the death or it never happened and then another wave will come again. Children’s grief often shows up as a behavior. They may experience anxiety, anger and shame. Let your child know it’s normal to feel anger towards their dead parent.
Provide lots of cuddles, reassurance and help your child find ways to process their feelings in a healthy way. Some examples of this are through writing, painting or drawing or to make a memory box. It helps if you also do these things as it will increase the likelihood your child will do so. Seek urgent help from a doctor or psychologist if you think your child is at risk of self-harm.
Provide a stable environment. Provide routines and rituals that help your child feel secure. If you are having difficulty doing this due to your personal grief, ask a family member or friend to help. Your child may be worried about whether you will also disappear. These rituals and routines together with telling them you would never leave them, provide children with tangible reassurance.
Communicate with your child’s school. One of the biggest concerns for children after losing a parent is how to transition back to school. Schools can help by checking with your child about what they want their classmates to know about the death. Discuss a plan for how the school can support your child, such as a class card. When your child returns to school, it is best for the school day to be as routine as possible. Ask the school to provide a safe space for your child to go if they need it.
It’s ok to have fun. Reassure your child that it’s still ok to smile, laugh and have fun even though their parent died. Children can feel confused or bad about this. Encourage friends to come over and for your child to continue participation in sports and hobbies.
Let them see your grief. Children learn how to grieve from the adults in their life. If we pretend not to cry or that everything is ok, children learn that grief is not acceptable. We need them to know that grief is normal. Seek help for your grief if you are having difficulty processing it in a healthy way.
A suicide death creates waves that ripple through families and communities. Hold yourself in a compassionate light as you journey with your child and their community in grief.