Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
Explaining Death by Suicide Years after it Happened
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “When my husband died a few years ago, I felt my kids were too little to understand a complicated death by suicide. Now that they’re older, it seems they have a right to the actual story. I’m concerned that they’ll hear about the events from someone else in the family or our neighborhood. I can’t figure out how to begin the conversation or what to tell them.”
Explaining suicide to children of any age isn’t easy. When years have passed since the death it can seem especially daunting. I don’t know how old your children are now, but your decision to share the more complete truth about their father’s death with them seems like a good one.
How to begin depends on what the children believe about what happened to their dad. If you begin by asking them if they have any questions, you may be surprised to find out that they have been wondering exactly what happened for some time. They might have overhead something and not felt comfortable asking about it.
If your children really seem to have no idea that the story they’ve had was a little vague or incomplete, you can explain that it’s an appropriate time for them to have more information. Start by saying, “You really are growing up and I appreciate how sensible and responsible you’re becoming day by day. I wanted to talk with you about Dad and about how he died. There were some things that I didn’t feel you would understand when you were younger, but I want you to know about now.”
The basic facts that you want to share with them are:
- Dad was ill. He had an illness (bi-polar disease, depression, anxiety, etc.) that affected his brain.
- When a person’s brain gets sick in this way, it is called ________ or mental illness.
- A brain that is sick creates a lot of thoughts and feelings that are painful and frightening to the person. The person finds it very hard to deal with the difficult and confused feelings. He may believe that he will feel this way forever and there is no way to get help. That isn’t true, but that’s the message that the sick brain keeps sending.
- Sometimes, when a person has been feeling this badly, he decides to make his body stop working and end his life. That is called suicide.
- That is what happened to Dad.
- It was a terribly sad mistake and we grown-ups (me, Dad’s mother, his brother, best friend, etc.) “would have tried” or “were trying” very hard to get Dad help from doctors, with treatment, and with medication – but he ended his life before we could get him any relief or help him feel better.
Sometimes children will ask how a person ended his life, sometimes not. We suggest sharing the information as the child asks for it. If a child asks for details, try to take any unnecessary drama out of the explanation. The following are some examples:
- He used a gun.
- She stopped her breathing. If the child asks how – “She used a rope.”
- If a person takes too much of certain kinds of medication, it can stop their breathing. That’s what happened.
- He let himself fall and his body was badly hurt.
- She crashed the car and her body was badly hurt.
It’s important that you let your children know that you are available and willing to answer any questions they have, now and as time goes on. Avoid trying to give reasons for the death, other than the illness of the brain. Although there may have been an event that seemed to trigger the suicide, it is the underlying illness that caused the person to believe that there was no help or solution.
If your children were told a completely different story at the time of the death, it’s important for you share that you believed that you were doing the right thing at the time and accept responsibility for the decision. Assure them that you have now shared the truth about what happened and that you are willing to answer any further questions they might have at any time.
Sometimes an older child will ask if suicide is hereditary, wanting to know if he or she is at risk. The correct answer is that depression is sometimes hereditary, but suicide is not. Let your child know that there are many effective treatments for depression or anxiety and that there is always new research and more treatment options available. Tell her that you want to know how she’s doing and that you will always respond when she encounters difficulties of any kind. Project a sense of calm and confidence (even if you’re faking it a little) that together you can meet the challenges that may come up.
Let him know that although life is not always easy, every life is significant and sacred. Tell her that she is amazing and unique and that her life is important.
It’s a tough conversation, but well worth the effort. You’ll be relieved and glad that you were the one to share such important and sensitive information with your kids in a way that is careful, well thought-out, and manageable. Your children will see you as someone they can trust – someone who loves them, cares for them, and trusts in their strength and resilience.
Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti co-authored the book 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children. Anne is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and their parents in Northfield, IL. Vicki is Manager of Children’s Bereavement Services at Rainbow Hospice in Mt. Prospect, IL. They created this Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death Series for the Alliance of Hope.