Bereavement due to suicide

Telling children and young people about a suicide

Telling children or grandchildren about a death in the family is difficult, especially after a suicide. In 2001, the charity, Winston’s Wish, published ‘Beyond the Rough Rock' supporting a child who has been bereaved by suicide’, a helpful booklet by Diana Crossley and Julie Stokes.

Crossley and Stokes believe that parents should try to be as honest as possible with their children. In their experience telling a child that someone has died by suicide may involve five stages, which may happen in the space of minutes, hours, days, months or even years. The five stages may be:
  • Explaining that the person has died
  • Giving simple details about how they died
  • Saying that the person took their own life
  • Describing in more detail how the person died
  • Exploring possible reasons why the person died by suicide

Some of the people we talked to had very young children or grandchildren when a member of the family died by suicide. Telling the children can be very hard for a recently bereaved partner and some did not do it straight away. Paula asked a friend to look after her 5 year old daughter after school, and could then break the news to her the next day.

Dolores’ son was only 13 weeks old when his father died. He is now two years old. Dolores has worked hard to keep Steve’s memory alive. She is sure that she will know when the time is right to give her son more information about what happened to his father when he was a baby.
Some people found it easier to explain the death by suicide as being due to an illness ‘in the head’. When Stephen’s wife died by suicide his daughters were very young. Gradually, over about a year, he told them more about how and why she had died.
Suicide is a difficult death to explain. Crossley and Stokes say that “it may be tempting to think up another explanation for the death, or another description of the circumstances, just to protect your children”. But, the authors point out, “Media interest, police visits and overheard conversations can all lead to a child finding out the truth by accident.”

If important information is withheld other people may also unwittingly reveal the truth and cause distress. Linda’s daughter, Chloe, was 13 when she died by suicide. Linda’s other daughter was 10 years old at the time. She did not realise that Chloe had taken her own life. However, she soon found out exactly what had happened from someone else.

Children and grandchildren reacted to the news of a suicide in the family in many different ways. Some appeared shocked, some were hysterical, others violent. When one of Amanda’s teenage sons heard that his brother had died he ran out of the house, leaving her feeling bewildered, hoping that he was safe.

Jacqui went to her children’s school to tell them that their father had died. They were teenagers at the time. They were quiet when they heard the news. The next day she told them that he had died by suicide. Her son said that he was aware of it already. The children had known that their father had had a mental health problem and that he had attempted suicide before. Jacqui wanted to make sure that the children knew that they were not to blame for their father’s suicide.

Patricia told her children about their father’s death when they were at home. A policeman was present. One of Patricia’s teenage children reacted quite violently when he heard what had happened. Looking back Patricia thinks it would have been better if a police officer had broken the news. She thinks her child’s anger might have been directed at the policeman instead of at her.

Marion told her 10 year-old son about his father’s death as soon as he got home from school. A policeman and her son’s teacher were also present at the time. Her son was devastated. Marion had to call a friend to help her deal with his distress.
One couple had decided not to tell their grandchildren that their son had died by suicide. The grandchildren were very young at the time of their uncle’s death in 1992. They are now teenagers, but their parents and grandparents have not told them that their uncle probably died by suicide. This is partly because his death could have been a car accident, but mainly because they do not want the teenage members of the family to consider suicide as possible way out of life’s problems.
 
Years after a member of the family has died by suicide young members of the family may ask questions about what happened in the past. Jane and Maurice were taken by surprise when their niece’s young son asked questions about Tom. However, Jane and Maurice are convinced that questions should be answered honestly.
Those who had delayed telling the children, or had hidden details, often found that they were very anxious about the possibility of someone blurting it out. For this reason it was a relief when they felt able to tell children the truth about the death.
 

Last reviewed January 2015.

Last updated October 2012.

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