Bereavement due to suicide
Telling children and young people about a suicide
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.
Dolores two-year-old son has some understanding of death. She will tell him more about the way...
So, we’re now left with visiting a grave and, having a little boy that’s daddy lives in heaven, but I do, I do believe it’s very important where young children are involved that they have an understanding that they do have this daddy or mummy, but daddy or mummy are no longer alive and visually there for them, but they have, I believe they have to be given an, understanding that they’re guiding them, that they’re around them.
And I keep Steve very much a living memory for my son.
But at some point in the journey, and I do put faith in knowing that I’ll know when the time is right, he will be given all the information, and he will know what happened, because at the end of the day, daddy did commit suicide thirteen weeks after he was born and there is a connection there, and I would be foolish to think my son wouldn’t make that connection at some point in his life.
Did anybody advise you what sort of age would be a good age to tell him?
No, what happened, nobody has but I’ve kind of, made my own decisions with regards how I was keeping daddy a living memory with our son, and at one point I came up against quite a lot of harsh criticism from my family, and I spoke with my psychologist about it and she showed me a DVD from Leeds Animation Workshops and it was how they work with young children, for Winston’s Wish, work with young children who have been affected by bereavement in their early years and it gave me a great amount of confidence because they were doing things that I had naturally just started to do with my son.
So it, it kind of just gave me a wee bit of reassurance and now as my son grows and develops, he has a very unique outlook and he will take something to school that a child that has two parents and lived a very charmed life won’t take, he has an understanding of death, he has an understanding of what it is to go and visit daddy in a grave, he’s not frightened of the graveyard, you go up there and he runs, he plays, so he’s not been brought up with an image of it being a bad place. He even actually, just last week we were driving up to the, the cemetery, and he said, “We going to daddy’s house?”
And that is how he sees it, that’s where daddy lives, the headstone has a photograph of the three of us and it, it’s very real to him, that is where daddy is and he blows a kiss to the sky and he sends a balloon up now and again, and that’s his understanding.
Bob's granddaughter was four when his son died. She was told that he had died and she went to the...
You have a granddaughter who was only four at the time, could you say what you did about telling her, and does she ask about it and how would you recommend to other people that they handle telling young children?
Well, at the time we took the advice of two people, the local vicar and the funeral director, or lady from the funeral director. She used to come round here to help us, and she told us, “Do not let, do not leave our granddaughter out, include her in it.” So we, we took her to a service, she was there with us to say goodbye to her Uncle Darren. We had plans if she started being a problem, or if it started being a problem, some, one of her friends would take her out, so we had things in line but she was as, as good as, as good as anything on the day. We felt it was, it was right we should include her in that because I mean it was her uncle, and in years to come she can’t, she can’t turn round and say, “Well, why didn’t you let me go?” That’s what had happened to this lady, when her father died she didn’t take her daughter to the funeral and afterwards she, the daughter said, “Well why can’t I go and say goodbye?”
And the other person, the other person was as I say the vicar, his wife worked at a local school and he said to us, “Do not lie to your children. You don’t have to tell them the complete truth but do not lie.” ‘Cos one time he was round, round at the school where his wife was working and a little boy came up and said, “I’m angry with God,” and he said, “Why?” He said, “Well, he took my Granddad away.” And the way it’d been explained to the boy he was blaming God.
And so when we talk to [our grand-daughter]; we didn’t tell her how her uncle died. Obviously we told her he had died, but then people, other people were telling her afterwards that he was on a cloud, he was in hospital, and he was at the doctors and it became a problem for us to try and get her to go to a hospital because she thought that she’d be kept in, so please do not lie to children. Some time afterwards she did ask her Mum what had happened, she was playing with her friends at the time and so her Mum wasn’t really ready for it, but she answered herself in some way, and she said like, “Was, was he murdered?” And our daughter said, “Well in a way he was.” And fairly recently we have actually included her in a conversation where we mentioned that Darren died by suicide, so you should tell them but, when they’re ready for it.
Paula told her five-year-old daughter that her father had died through illness. Sometime later...
That day I phoned, the day it happened I phoned a friend. She had a good friend at school and I phoned the mum and said, “Look this has happened. Can you take her because I can’t cope with that as well.” Do you know so she came back the following day and obviously the house was full of strange people and I just told her. I mean what do you do? You have to. I told her he died and she said, “How?” And I said he was ill and he died. And I remember. I don’t know the sequence of things anymore. I remember sometime afterwards, she quite quickly got out of me that he’d killed himself and I was at pains to keep stressing that this was as the result of an illness and it wasn’t; he wouldn’t have kind of done that in the normal way of things.
So if other mothers are wondering what to tell their children would you recommend being as honest as possible?
Oh yes, yes... But there’s no point in being honest about things they can’t understand yet.
I think it would be far worse for children to find out from someone else, or to hear from other people, which could happen and to have lingering suspicions that their one remaining parent is not telling the truth. It’s not being honest with them. They can’t trust them.
Helens grandchildren asked many questions about their Aunt Charlottes death. As they get older...
How did you tell them [the grandchildren] what had happened?
I think my daughter actually told, told them that Auntie Charlotte had died and she’d gone to heaven, but they asked a lot, a lot of questions about it all the time. In some ways that was very difficult, but in some ways that helped too, because we had to put it in very simple language to tell them, and they asked where she’d gone, and what would happen to her body, and we had to tell them everything.
Did you tell them that she’d killed herself? Or weren’t you sure at that time?
No, we weren’t sure at that time, no, we said that she’d died because she was unwell, and that she was; they asked where she was, and we told her that she was in her flat, and that seemed to satisfy them. And I don’t think we’ll, we’ll tell them exactly what happened until they’re older, able to take that in. And actually we don’t know.
So, I think they’ll just understand as they get older. But we won’t tell them any lies definitely because everybody advised us, the psychiatric team, and everybody has advised us not to tell them any lies at all. Not to cover up what happened, because that wouldn’t help them in the long run.
Stephens daughters were four and six when his wife died. At first he told them that their mother...
And then we really spent, myself, a couple of friends, my brother had come over by this time, and the vicar, and we spent a lot of time, and the next door neighbour as well, we spent a lot of time just discussing what to say to the children, how to put it to them.
So how did you decide to tell the children in the end?
Well, we came up with what we thought we’d say, and then a friend’s husband sort of just confirmed what SeeSaw [a registered charity dedicated to providing grief and bereavement support for children] had said, to see if they sort of matched, to see if we’d got it right you know rather than sort of; and we basically, well my first thought was I wanted to tell them the truth as far as I felt that they could actually cope with it, you know four and a half and six, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to tell them that she’d hanged herself in the hallway, and I was also conscious though that I didn’t want to have to go back on what I’d said and say “Oh actually I, you know Daddy actually knew, lied to you, it wasn’t you know he didn’t sort of, you know Mummy didn’t die in a car crash, she actually took her own life.” I felt that was the wrong way to go, I mean certainly that was all the advice is, is that you know, don’t lie to them, and even things like you know, “Mummy’s gone to heaven,” you know those things may not necessarily be lies but, to a child they don’t necessarily mean what you think you know as an adult they might mean. So we resolved, so it was to tell them that Mummy had been extremely ill, but it was an illness that you wouldn’t normally, that you can’t see, it’s an illness in her head. And that this afternoon the illness got too much for her, and the illness killed her. And because in my mind, and this has really helped me, helped me get through it, is to see it as indeed as what it is, as an illness. And just as much as a heart attack kills you or cancer kills you, depression kills you, you know. She wasn’t the sort of person; she was a very happy, very positive sort of person. Taking her own life, I can’t imagine what horrors she must’ve been feeling to do that, in front of, in the hallway, a panel of pictures of her and her family…
Do you want a break?
No it’s all right.
So how did the children take that news?
It was terrible. Phoebe my younger daughter just, she cried in this way that was… I mean looking back on it I was sort of, I think again happy is the wrong word completely but it was, the way she, they way they both reacted was that they got it, there were no questions left.
About a year after his wifes suicide, when Stephens eldest daughter asked questions about her...
So to go back to your children, did they bring up the subject again, or did you actually bring it up especially on that day because you had your friend coming?
No well, since the summer they [the children] hadn’t, they hadn’t mentioned it again, but I had been organising, you know I’d organised it specifically that I would tell them that morning, with Gill’s friend there. But as I say, we were going out the door, this was in the afternoon of having, having told them, we’re going out the door and Izzy has then put two and two together and said, “Well so, so it must have been in the house Daddy?” Because remember she’s asked how she’d died, and I said, how, how Gill died, and I’d told her how Gill died but I hadn’t said.
You specifically said she hung herself did you?
I told her that she’d hanged herself.
By a rope, round her neck, which had suffocated her. And that she hadn’t, you know she wouldn’t have sort of, she wouldn’t have suffered any pain doing that, it would’ve happened quite quickly. Quite graphic thinking back on it, but, I don’t know, it, it, it’s, it; because then they’d asked about, they’d asked, that’s right over the summer, when they were asking these questions, that walk that we were on, Izzy had asked specifically about, you know the, what happens when you die and what is that process of dying, so it was you know, she’s quite, you know, but it seemed fine anyway, but anyway, so we go, so she then says. so now she’s asking of course, well where is it? So where did she die?
And I looked at, I looked at Gill’s friend, and she afterwards told me she sort of, she said it was like a lifetime, she was going, “Well what the hell’s he going to say now?” You know, “Say something please?” And I just sort of, and I can’t remember exactly the course of events, but I said something like, “Oh,” I was sort of buying time really, “Well, how, how do you sort of, how did you work that one out?” And she said, she then explained, she said, “Well you said that you know, you’d come home and…, so therefore it must’ve been somewhere in the house”. I remember I took a big deep breath and of course I’m standing in the hallway, and I said, “Well Mummy hanged herself, hanged herself in the hallway, just there. She tied a rope around that banister, that’s where it happened.” “Okay. Yeah. Can we get our shoes on?” And out the door [claps] and that’s it, off, and that’s the last she’s ever mentioned that, and that’s now what three months ago.
So is it a burden off your shoulders that you have been able to talk to them about it?
Yes, yes, I mean I think you know it was, early on it was a big, big issue.
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.
Linda's ten-year-old daughter was angry because she hadn't immediately been told the truth about...
Hmm. And what did you say to your other daughter when she came home?
Well, …I can’t really remember. I think she came back and she just ran in and we sat on the settee, crying and hugging each other. And then my husband came in and he was the same, crying and hugging us. And then, I think they’d already told my other daughter because she said afterwards that, I think one of the police, a policewoman had been into next door and she’d said to them, “Oh, has Chloe got to go to hospital?” And I think they’d said something like, “No.” Well they just said, “No.” And she said she’d thought that meant that Chloe was OK, that she hadn’t got to go [to hospital]. And, and she said that to them and, and they said, “No, she’s …” I don’t know exactly what they said to her …
But you think your other daughter knew …
… when she came back?
But the difficult thing with that was, she didn’t know, because she didn’t, when she came in Chloe was just lying on the floor, so she thought that she’d just, I don’t know, had a fit or collapsed or something.
And we didn’t really tell her any different to start with. And then the next day I think it was, someone else told her how Chloe had died, just thinking that she knew. So then she was really angry at us for not telling her.
So what we did eventually, we said that we’d tell her everything that she wanted to know and went through it. And I said to her that I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t like lie to her. I didn’t lie to her, I just didn’t correct her. But I said I’d be truthful with her and if there was anything she wanted to know I’d try and find out for her if I didn’t know. And that’s what we did.
So, so for other parents who are wondering to tell other children would you recommend being as honest as possible?
As quickly as possible?
Yes. I think it depends on the children’s age …
… how you explain it, but I think it’s best to tell them …
… straight away.
Because you say your other daughter was a little bit angry to start with because she hadn’t heard it from you?
Yes. Well, she actually, when she found out she, she was angry. (…)
So, that’s why we decided to be like really honest with her. And, plus, I mean it was in the paper, and, you know, there was going to be an inquest, so she was going to find out anyway.
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.
After Mike died Jacqui told the children that their dad had died. The next day she told them that...
I mean, I think we had about ten, fifteen minutes to play with or something, you know, maybe a bit longer than that, but obviously if we were going to be caught in traffic we thought ‘oh we’re not gonna make it in time’, and the headmaster had gone and got the kids, and we were in the headmaster’s room and he gave me a hug and said he was sorry and, and, and he said, “Are you ready?.” For, you know, for the kids to come out and I’d said, “Yeah.” And the kids just walked through and, the head teacher’s there, my friend was there, the policeman was there, although they were at another part of the room.
They gave me time to just, you know, just say to the kids and I just said, you know, I says, “Your dad’s dead,” and that was it, really, came in and we sat for a while and obviously they, you know, we hugged and things like that, and we sat for a while and then we sort of thought ‘right well we better get, try and get back home before the rush, of the schools coming out’ and because obviously there was a police car sitting outside the school, it was a case of let’s get out quick, you know, get out quick and on our way home before school actually finished ‘cause otherwise that would’ve drawn attention to the kids that, you know, why are they going in a….[police car]
How old were the children?
Then they would have been fifteen and eleven.
And how did they react to this terrible news?
Just quiet, just quiet, and I didn’t actually tell them, my daughter did ask that night if dad had committed suicide, and, I just said, “You don’t need to know that.” You know, I says, “You don’t need to know anything about that yet.” I said, “Just.” You know I said, “Your dad’s died and that’s it.” And I can’t remember whether it was the next day, or the day after, it was probably the next day when people had been in touch and, obviously the head teachers from the schools had communicated and they’d sort of said, you know, “Should they really, the kids need to be told,” obviously, because of word had escaped somehow. And so I brought them into this room, obviously ‘cause there was lots of people still coming and going and my family from the north of England had come up, that night they were staying with me and they were all in and out, I just put the kids into this room and I just said, “Right.” I said, “I think you need to know.”
“You know that your dad committed suicide.” And, …my daughter just nodded her head and my son sort of said, “Well I gathered that.” And I sort of say, “You don’t need to know how.”
But you need to know, you know, this is what’s happened, and they said, “Yeah okay.”
For other mothers in this situation you’d recommend being as honest as possible to your children?
Yes, yes, definitely. I think obviously it depends on age, it would depends on their age…
…but also because, …of the length of the illness that we had had, we had all suffered as the, as a family, and, we were always quite open, very open with the kids and, as soon as they were of an age, well they were old enough to sort of understand, they were both aware that their dad had had previous attempts before…
…and I also used that to try and explain as to why, mum perhaps, …maybe we overreact, I overreacted or I felt as though I had to give more attention to their dad, at times and I didn’t want them to think that was anything to do with them.
So from, I don’t know maybe about ten, ten-ish, nine-ish, ten-ish they sort of knew that, dad was dad, but, you know, there were times that things were a bit fraught in the family and I just had to reassure them that, you know, it had nothing to do with, you know, they weren’t the cause of it or anything like that, but I so wanted them to understand that you know? I had to focus on their dad at times and that sometimes they felt as though they were maybe, weren’t getting the attention that they should be getting but it seems to have worked okay, it seems that, you know, I think they’ve come out of it okay, touch wood I’m, I’m alright.
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.
Patricia's children all reacted differently when they heard their father had died. She thinks she...
Which it doesn’t matter if it’s a police officer.
Oh, I see.
And it is much, much better practice, (I didn’t understand at that time, nobody can be trained to go through this sort of experience), for me to be sitting beside them and the police officer to deliver the news.
I didn’t understand that. [My youngest son’s] reaction was immense anger which he took out on me for a long, long time. And also the shock, blanked, after I’d said, “Daddy’s dead,” everything else I said didn’t register, so that some months later, when the inquest report was in the, in the paper, some kind soul, pupil at school cut it out, took it in to show [my youngest son], and ages later [my youngest son] said to me, “You, you lied to me.” The conversation we were having, we had a very difficult time with him, and middle of one night he came in and we had a conversation down here at about 4 o’clock in the morning and he said, “You lied to me.” And I said, “No I haven’t lied to you.” “What, what do you mean? When dad, you didn’t tell me my dad topped himself. I had to hear that from somebody at school.” And I said, “[name], I did tell you.”
“I didn’t use that phraseology”.
I said, “You seem to have forgotten there was a police sergeant there. We will go and find that police sergeant.”
I said, “What you’ve, unfortunately suffered from was one of the effects of shock.”
“As soon as you knew dad was dead, nothing else that I said to you registered through the emotion that that caused. But I didn’t lie to you. You just didn’t retain it. It couldn’t lodge itself in your brain.”
So, as I say, that’s one of the things I feed into training that, that I give these days. Just, simple practical things: try to make sure there are two officers; one can do the tea, the other can be human touch, human contact; don’t just say to the parents, “We can break the news,” explain why it’s important, and that whatever anger or emotion is focused on them and not on the parent or other relative, sibling or whoever is with them.
But nobody had prepared me for what to do, I just had to do what seemed right and I, that was a mistake I made.
Marion called a friend to help her calm her ten-year-old son after she had told him the terrible...
And then of course my youngest came home from school. His head-teacher brought him home from school in the car and he didn’t know anything about all of this. He had no idea. And.
That must have been the hardest thing.
He came in from school and there was a police car still outside the house, and a policeman in the house, and he bounced in like all 10-year olds do and said, “Hi yeah Mum”. And I said, “Hello darling, come and sit down.” And he said, “Why, what’s the matter? Has granddad died?” Granddad being the oldest person in the family. And I said, “No Daddy has.”
And he was hysterical within minutes. He and his daddy were very, very close. And he was really desperately upset. He was. He was pretty difficult to handle, I must admit he was very difficult to handle. My auntie was still here, bless her, she hadn’t gone anywhere. It was very, very hard. And that particular evening I don’t know what happened that evening. I can’t remember what happened that evening except that I remember ringing my other very, very dear friend and saying to her, “Will you please come and put this child to bed before I strangle him”, because he ’d lost the plot completely and I don’t think I’d even found it. I mean it was just total devastation.
Was anyone else in the house when you told him? Was the policeman here still?
The police were here and his head-teacher stayed. She was well, the deputy head. She was actually his form teacher at the time and she was absolutely amazing. She was lovely but she wasn’t who he wanted and I wasn’t who he wanted and he was really, really bitterly distressed. And I do remember this friend of mine coming down and saying, “You go and sit in the sitting room. I’ll deal with this.” And she spent about an hour just talking to him about the place where daddy could be now where it will be better and…
You are Christians you said?
The grandchildren discussed their uncles death with other young members of the family, who then...
We had some little, well a second cousin, my cousin brought her children, sorry my niece brought her children and they were talking with our grandchildren and they suddenly came up with, at the dinner table, something about Tom hanging himself, and there was a deathly silence, and the little boy was chirping, chirping, chirping wanting to know the answers, and my niece is very sweet and just turned to me and said, “I’m sorry” and I said, “It’s alright. It’s just I’m not sure how to answer simply enough, and quickly enough, but I really don’t mind them asking,” and you know it was a little bit difficult for the second cousin you know who obviously had never known Tom. But in a way it was quite good that the grandchildren had accepted that it was part of our family life, and they know about Tom, a bit.
So do you think that it’s best to be open and honest with children when they ask?
Oh yes. Yes because in fact there’s a bit of family history of suicides in sort of grandparents generation, in fact on both sides, that I didn’t know about until you know you’re aware of the subject, therefore you pick it up when you, in other situations. So yes I might’ve known more about it if people hadn’t covered it over in the past. So I’m glad the grandchildren know the truth, it was just they took me slightly, [by surprise].
Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated October 2012.