Supporting Children and Teens after a Suicide Death:
Telling Preschool Children
by Anne Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti
Q: “How soon do I tell my preschool children about their father’s death from suicide, and what do I tell them?”
The short answer is that now is the right time to tell them – don’t put it off until they are older. “But they don’t have the concepts to understand,” you may say. And you would be right; they don’t have the concepts. That’s part of the reason you start now to construct the foundation of words and ideas that they can build on as they grow. You are thinking long range. You are helping your children form the concepts they need and can use now – and in the future. That’s also part of the reason you tailor your explanations to their developmental level so that you’re telling them the truth, but it’s the truth that they can make use of now.
There is never a “right moment” when a child is going to understand suicide. Understanding is a process, not an “aha” moment. And it’s a long, slow process – even for adults. Waiting for some hoped-for sign that this is the time to tell also increases the risk that the child will feel shocked and betrayed when you do tell her. Or that she’ll overhear a remark made by someone and then build up a load of misconceptions, fantasies, and/or worries based on information that you have no control over.
It works better for little children to have a simple story about the death that can be adapted as they grow older and are able to understand more. If the words are familiar, they lose their power to shock and scare. Think of the way adopted children are now told that they were adopted, well before they can grasp the full meaning of the word “adoption.” Even though a child’s entrance into a loving family is a happy event, and the loss of a loved one to suicide is an extremely sad event, the model of this piece of information being something the child has always known is a helpful one. Treating this information as one aspect of the family’s life leads most easily to the children integrating that fact into their life stories. As they grow older, they can rework the story as they need to at each developmental stage.
So what do your young children need to know? First, they need to know that their daddy’s body stopped working and he died. You explain this in very concrete terms. When someone dies, he can’t breathe anymore, he can’t move anymore, he can’t see anymore, he can’t talk anymore, he doesn’t feel any more pain. He no longer needs to eat or drink or use the bathroom. Expect repetitive questions about this. It doesn’t mean your child isn’t listening; the cessation of life is really hard to grasp. (See our book, 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children, for more discussion of talking to young children about death and funerals.)
Next, you can mention that Daddy’s brain got very sick. He got very confused and he made his body stop working. This is called “suicide.” Best they hear that word from you or someone else who knows them well. Great detail isn’t necessary or helpful. You’re just supplying a word that they’ll hear sooner or later. Most young children don’t ask a lot of questions about suicide at this point. Their focus is more likely to be on coming to realize that Daddy really isn’t coming back. But you’re giving them a scaffold so that they can ask you questions when they get older and are ready to process more.
If and only if they ask for more information, keep it simple and low key: “Daddy took too much strong medicine – the kind we wouldn’t ever give you – and his heart stopped beating. When someone’s heart stops beating, his body stops working and he dies.”
If your child saw or heard something, first ask what she saw or heard and what she thinks happened. Then take it from there, again keeping it as simple and nondramatic as possible. For example, if she asks about emergency medical personnel coming to the house and taking her father away in the ambulance with sirens wailing, you could say, “The people in the ambulance came to see if they could get Daddy’s body working again. Those loud noises were sirens so other cars would get out of the way while they hurried to the hospital. But the people in the ambulance and the doctors at the hospital couldn’t get Daddy’s body working again.”
You know your own children. Gear your words to their vocabulary and to what they are asking. If you listen to them carefully and watch their body language, you’ll know what they are satisfied with.
If you can’t bear to say “suicide” or even “he made his body stop working,” be sure that you do not lie to your children. They need to be able to trust you, and you need not to have to undo anything you’ve said. You can say, “Daddy got very sick very fast and his body stopped working.” That way you haven’t said any untruths that you’ll have to take back later.
And remember that young children need your hugs and your reassurance that no matter how sad you are, you’ll take care of them. Pull in other caring adults to help you so that you’re not doing that all alone. You all deserve that support.
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.