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Honesty with Children about Suicide
Saturday, August 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Most surviving caregivers question whether telling children about the suicide aspect of their loved one’s death is the right thing to do.  We believe that sharing the fact that their loved one’s death was caused by suicide offers children a beginning piece of their grief work.  Not communicating this information as soon as they can comprehend this manner of death puts them at risk for discovering it later in a context that may be unhelpful and that can evoke anger and dismay at having been deceived.  When you talk with your child, make sure that you have the time to focus on them, to emotionally support and nurture them.   Limit the information to what they need and don’t include disturbing details that can add trauma to their processing. 

Keep in mind your child’s developmental capacity for assimilating and using this information.  A young child must first understand that death is biological, permanent, and irreversible before you would add the challenge to comprehend suicide.  The earliest explanation of suicide will build on the child’s grasp that death means the body completely stops working:  “Daddy died.  He had a sickness in his brain called depression that made his body stop working.”  This is honest and creates the foundation for future explanation when the child can grasp more of the concept of suicide.  Until age 7 or 8 your child will only respond to the absence of their loved one while they grapple with understanding the permanence of death.

In middle-childhood he or she will probably want more information about how your loved one died.  “Daddy died by suicide.  He had depression, which made him think things that did not make sense and he ended his own life.”  Starting at age 10, if children ask you can add the manner of suicide:  “He died by jumping from a window.”  Children in this stage are not likely to ask for specific details about the death.  But if they do, you should shield them from details that would cause further trauma.  Try instead to understand the meaning beneath the question and respond to that meaning.  Seek advice from a mental health professional if you struggle with how to respond.  

For adolescents, you can provide the complete story without disturbing details.  Complications associated with the suicide, gory details, or disturbing words in a suicide note are not useful for young grievers.  “Daddy died by suicide.  He was very depressed and wanted to end his pain.  With this kind of depression, he was not able to find any good answers, and he was not able to think about the pain this would cause for us.  Daddy died by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car.” 

You can compassionately teach children about mental illness, about the fact that suicide is tragic, but it need not be a secret and it is not shameful.  Your tone can model empathy and respect for the pain experienced by your loved one.  Your child will struggle with the knowledge of suicide, but is more likely to grow with gratitude and trust that you did not deny them the truth associated with a formative loss.  



Archives:

Honesty with Children about Suicide
Saturday, August 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Most surviving caregivers question whether telling children about the suicide aspect of their loved one’s death is the right thing to do.  We believe that sharing the fact that their loved one’s death was caused by suicide offers children a beginning piece of their grief work.  Not communicating this information as soon as they can comprehend this manner of death puts them at risk for discovering it later in a context that may be unhelpful and that can evoke anger and dismay at having been deceived.  When you talk with your child, make sure that you have the time to focus on them, to emotionally support and nurture them.   Limit the information to what they need and don’t include disturbing details that can add trauma to their processing. 

Keep in mind your child’s developmental capacity for assimilating and using this information.  A young child must first understand that death is biological, permanent, and irreversible before you would add the challenge to comprehend suicide.  The earliest explanation of suicide will build on the child’s grasp that death means the body completely stops working:  “Daddy died.  He had a sickness in his brain called depression that made his body stop working.”  This is honest and creates the foundation for future explanation when the child can grasp more of the concept of suicide.  Until age 7 or 8 your child will only respond to the absence of their loved one while they grapple with understanding the permanence of death.

In middle-childhood he or she will probably want more information about how your loved one died.  “Daddy died by suicide.  He had depression, which made him think things that did not make sense and he ended his own life.”  Starting at age 10, if children ask you can add the manner of suicide:  “He died by jumping from a window.”  Children in this stage are not likely to ask for specific details about the death.  But if they do, you should shield them from details that would cause further trauma.  Try instead to understand the meaning beneath the question and respond to that meaning.  Seek advice from a mental health professional if you struggle with how to respond.  

For adolescents, you can provide the complete story without disturbing details.  Complications associated with the suicide, gory details, or disturbing words in a suicide note are not useful for young grievers.  “Daddy died by suicide.  He was very depressed and wanted to end his pain.  With this kind of depression, he was not able to find any good answers, and he was not able to think about the pain this would cause for us.  Daddy died by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car.” 

You can compassionately teach children about mental illness, about the fact that suicide is tragic, but it need not be a secret and it is not shameful.  Your tone can model empathy and respect for the pain experienced by your loved one.  Your child will struggle with the knowledge of suicide, but is more likely to grow with gratitude and trust that you did not deny them the truth associated with a formative loss.