There may be questions about whether to tell children what has happened and how to go about this. There are some resources and services available to assist in thinking about these questions on the Postvention Australia website. You can also phone NSW PSS on 1300 727 247.
What you tell children and how you tell them will depend on your knowledge and understanding of your child and what they know about death and suicide already. It is preferable that children are told the truth in a gentle, compassionate yet straightforward way; that is, saying that someone they know and love has died and that they took their own life. It is also preferable that the person who tells them is someone they are comfortable with, who they trust and who will continue to care for them. This might be a parent, but if parents are too distressed it may be better that it is someone else.
It’s often assumed that children won't know or understand what suicide means. However, many children from as young as eight years old do understand what it is to take your own life. Even if you think the children are not aware of what has happened, they are extremely sensitive and may have picked up that something is wrong or that they are not being told the full story. Or they may have overheard you or others talking about it.
Here are some important things to remember:
- Ensure that you talk to the child in a safe space where there are no distractions.
- Outline the things you would like them to know, these may be facts about the death, how you and others are feeling, inviting but not requiring the child to engage in the conversation with you.
- While you may be letting them know about what has happened, do not go into graphic details.
It is best to be honest (in an age-appropriate way) about the circumstances of the death when supporting children. At some point the truth may come out, and it is better for the child to be told in a safe and nurturing space by a main caregiver. It may also be helpful to explain some of the following concepts around death:
- Everyone is going to die sometime.
- When someone dies, it is permanent (for example, that they are not sleeping, and that they are not waiting for them to come back). Nothing can bring them back, but we can still remember them.
- Sometimes death is sudden, like a traffic accident, heart attack or suicide.
- Regardless of what was said or done, it is not their fault that the person died.
- Though they are gone, there are other people who love them and will be there for them.
- Reassure the child that they did not cause the death. Children may be asking themselves, “Did I cause this to happen?” and often feel guilty or responsible for the death.
- They may have more questions after the initial conversation. It is okay to not know all the answers, and you can say so. Ask your children questions too to help you understand how they are feeling.
- Reassure the child that the grieving process may be painful and take some time, but eventually they will feel better
- If you are explaining why someone ends their own life, it’s important to include some suggestions about what to do when life feels difficult or painful; to be reaching out to people for support and assistance.
Some more helpful things to consider for children:
Grief Expressions of Young People
Young people are already going through complex transitions in their age group, including behavioural, social, cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual developments. Many young people are exploring their identity, their independence, and relationships with peers during this time.
During adolescence, grief has the potential to accelerate or delay development. Young people can often feel overwhelmed and confused by the intensity and range of feelings they are experiencing. Their limited life experience may not prepare them to handle intense feelings in safe ways.
Many young people feel conflicted about seeking support from their parents as they are also striving for independence. They may feel alienated from peers and struggle to concentrate at school. These factors can create vulnerability, which may lead to isolation, confusion and increased risk-taking behaviour.
- Intolerance or aggression toward parents and others
- Erratic decision making
- Disjointed conversations
- Social isolation or withdrawal
- Risk-taking behaviour
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting like a younger child
- Acting more like an adult
- Problems with school and schoolwork
Pains such as stomach aches or headaches
Sleeping problems or change in sleeping habits
Changes in appetite
Lacking energy or tiredness
Restlessness or nervous energy
- Disbelief, numbness, sadness
- Panic, helplessness
- Fear and anxiety
- Mood changes
- Easily upset
- Low self esteem
- Poor concentration
- Racing mind
- Sense of unreality
- Difficulty in making decisions
Questions around spirituality:
- “Why did this happen?”
- “Why me?”
- Loss of meaning
- Questioning faith and challenging beliefs
- Searching for understanding
For more suggestions, please visit our Resources Page for a number of helpful readings, guides and websites.