Explaining Suicide to Children

Suicide is a topic often surrounded by silence and shame; it is hard for most adults to understand and even harder to explain to children. However, if parents don’t talk to their children about suicide, their children may hear about it elsewhere and may get inaccurate or confusing information.

We believe that children can cope with difficult situations as long as they can talk about it openly with their parents or guardians. Children work hard to make sense out of their world, and adults can help them with that task by providing information and reassurance. An unknown can easily cause apprehension even for adults, and it is important to provide age-appropriate, concrete information for children to enable them to prevent imaginations and minds from over-thinking and creating distress in addition to their bereavement. 

The following guidelines are intended for families who may not be directly affected by a suicide, but who wish to talk about this subject with their child. Click on any of the below to read in further detail. 

  • Talk to the child in a calm, straightforward manner
  • Define suicide for your child
  • Distinguish depression as a disease
  • Emphasize that suicide is not a solution to problems and there are always other choices
  • Share your beliefs 

Talk to the child in a calm, straightforward manner

Children look to you for cues and will pick up on your discomfort. They will benefit from your ability and willingness to help them understand. As with any death, it is okay to show emotion to a child, and it is okay to verbalize what they are feeling. E.g., "I am very sad that [Name] died, and it is okay to be sad," or "It seems like you are angry because [name] died. Would you like to talk about that?" Like many adults, children feel validated when they learn that their emotions are acceptable and legitimate. 

Define suicide for your child 

Suicide is when a person takes his or her own life, or does something to make himself or herself die. Most often, people who choose suicide are severely depressed and believe it is the only way to stop their pain.

Linda Goldman, in her book Breaking the Silence, defines suicide for children as follows: “Suicide is when people decide they do not want their body to work anymore and they stop their body from working. They are so, so sad or so, so angry or so, so depressed that their mind becomes mixed up. They forget they can get help. There is always another way.”

Many professionals discourage the use of the phrase “committed suicide” because of the negative connotations of the verb commit (e.g. crime, sin); you could instead say the person completed suicide, died by suicide, suicided, or took his/her own life.

Distinguish depression as a disease

It is different from the sadness and “depression” that many people experience occasionally. It is normal to occasionally feel sad, lonely, dispirited, or upset, sometimes for no reason, and we often call this depression. This is different from clinical depression, which can be a debilitating disease causing severe emotional pain, hopelessness, and inability to seek help or believe life can be better. People who choose suicide often believe that others will be better off without them. You might explain to a young child that when a person dies by suicide, their mind was sick and they were not able to think clearly and make good decisions.

Emphasize that suicide is not a solution to problems and there are always other choices

Medical treatment and counseling can help people who are severely depressed. Talk with your child about coping with sadness and other difficult feelings and help them identify things they can do such as talking with someone, or using art, music, writing or physical activity to express their feelings. Children may need reassurance that you will not choose suicide no matter how sad or upset you are, and that you will seek help if you or anyone in the family ever feels depressed or hopeless. (Do not offer false assurances. If you or your child are experiencing chronic or severe depression, get help immediately. Ele’s Place staff can assist with referrals.)

It is okay to admit that you don’t have all the answers

Even close family members may never know exactly why their loved one chose suicide. As outsiders we can extend our support and compassion to the survivors, being careful not to add to their pain by making judgments or assumptions. Answer your child’s questions honestly, and help them to understand that even though we may feel suicide is a bad choice, people who take their own lives are still loved and missed by their families.

Share your beliefs

Talk with your child about what makes life worth living and your hopes for the future. Nurture a sense of wonder, joy, and hope in yourself and your children. Be realistic about the challenges of life and seek help when needed, but also share an appreciation for the good things in life.

Teens Coping With Suicide Loss

Suicide is often surrounded by silence and shame; it is hard for most people to understand and even harder to cope with. As a teenager, you are already faced with many difficult obstacles that challenge your ability to move forward, including dating, getting good grades in school and succeeding in sports. It is a very stressful time in anyone’s life. Dealing with a death on top of all of this may seem impossible, but it is important to know that you are not alone and that there are people just like you who are also learning to cope with a suicide death.

This outline is meant to help you better understand what you are currently going through and to inform you of the resources available to help you through the grieving process.

Suicide defined

Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life voluntarily or intentionally. Most often, people who complete suicide believe it is their only option. To them, suicide seems like the only way to stop their emotional pain. Suicide is often associated with mental illness or clinical depression, which can be a debilitating disease that causes severe emotional pain, hopelessness and the inability to seek help or believe that life can be any better. This is different from the sadness or pain felt after the death of a loved one.

Coping with the death

Oftentimes, suicide is surrounded with a negative stigma. People might feel embarrassed that their family member or friend would take their own life, or guilty because they believe they could have done something to prevent it. It is completely normal to feel these emotions plus many more, including sadness, loneliness, numbness, anxiety and anger. Your feelings may be very intense and overwhelming at times. This is because grief after a suicide is often more complicated. There is no right or wrong way to handle the grief associated with suicide because everyone copes with the pain differently.

Tips for Coping

  • Talk with someone you trust
  • Channel your feelings into activities
    • Sports/exercise
    • Listening to music
    • Art
    • Writing or journaling
    • Video games
  • Reach out to friends and family for support
  • Educate yourself about depression, mental illness and alcohol or substance abuse if these factors may have contributed to the suicide
  • Know that anger and other emotions are a normal part of grief
  • Remember that grief is hard work- time alone doesn’t heal, you need to allow yourself to acknowledge and express your feelings
  • Seek out professional help when needed
  • Consider joining a teen grief support group
  • Avoid drugs, alcohol and other detrimental behaviors

You are not alone

It is important to know that you are not alone in your grief. Organizations, like Ele’s Place, offer services at no cost to help teens just like you through the grieving process. For many, the ability to talk about the feelings that follow the suicide of someone close to you with others who have gone through a similar experience is extremely helpful in the healing process. Peer groups, like the one at Ele’s Place, allow teens to come together to remember their loved ones and talk about their emotions in a safe environment where they will not be judged.

Looking for answers

Suicide is usually unexpected, leaving many questions unanswered. Part of the healing process includes gradually coming to terms with the fact that you may never know the answers to these questions and that you may never completely understand what happened or why. There is no quick or easy way through this part of your grief journey, but learning more about suicide may help.

Life beyond the tragedy

The death of someone close to you, especially a suicide death, is a life-changing experience. You may be questioning everything you used to take for granted, and it may be hard to believe that you can ever be happy again. You will probably discover strengths you didn’t know you had as you struggle with feelings more intense than anything you’ve ever experienced. Be kind to yourself and seek out support as you learn how to move forward with your life. Allow yourself to experience moments of happiness and appreciation, and remember that help is available if you need it.