Telling a Child about a Death by Suicide

Telling a child about a death by suicide can be very challenging. Children don’t have the same understanding of death as adults. And they react differently when confronted with a loved one’s death by suicide. Here’s some advice on how to announce such news to a child.

Telling a Child about a Death by Suicide

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Childhood development

Before offering practical advice, it’s important to note that a child’s level of development will impact their ability to understand the situation. That’s why we’ve divided the content of this page into sections based on age. Keep in mind that these age categories are meant as a guideline only. Depending on their rate of development, a child’s understanding of death may be closer to the next or previous age group.

If you’re unsure about how well your child can understand the situation, ask a health professional for support based on your child’s stage of development.

How to tell a child about a death by suicide

Breaking the news to a child can be very difficult. You may be too overwhelmed by your own grief to share the information. If this is the case, it can be helpful to find someone you trust to talk to your child. The important thing is that you’re able to take care of yourself and that the child is informed. You should avoid putting the child in a situation where they are aware that something serious is happening without knowing what it is.

Here’s how to tell a child that someone they care about has died by suicide:

  1. Find a quiet place to talk with the child and tell them you have sad and important news to share.
  2. Sit near the child.
  3. Tell them that the deceased had big problems and didn’t see any way of solving them. Say that there are always solutions.
  4. Give a brief, factual description of what happened without going into detail. Avoid vague terms and metaphors. Use the words “dead” and “deceased.” Avoid saying that the person went to sleep because it could cause the child to fear falling asleep or get scared when their loved ones are asleep.
  5. Adapt the language you use to the child’s age and what they’re able to understand. Don’t say more than you have to. Such news is already a lot to digest and the child won’t necessarily want any more information right away.
  6. It’s important to tell the truth. If you hide the truth or the suicide from a child, they may feel angry to learn about it from someone else, or betrayed when they eventually find out what actually happened.

Age-based advice for telling a child about a death by suicide

In general:

  • Tell the truth in words the child can understand.
  • Explain that suicide is not a solution and that there are always other ways to solve problems.
  • Reassure them that you’re not going to die and that you’re healthy.
  • If the deceased was one of the child’s guardians, tell the child that someone will always be there to take care of them.
  • Reassure them that it’s not their fault.
  • Talking about a death by suicide takes more than one discussion. With each new stage in the child’s development, their evolving understanding and developmental progress will give rise to new questions.
  • Give the child time to digest the information and be receptive to their reactions. There’s no right or wrong way to react to the news of a suicide.
  • Respect the child’s needs (e.g., to be alone, cry, scream, express anger, go outside to play, etc.)

Preschoolers — Ages 0 to 5

Their understanding of death

  • Do not understand that death is a permanent thing
  • May believe the person will come back
  • May believe they’re capable of bringing back the deceased person

How to tell them

  • Explain that the person has committed suicide, which means that they have died.
  • Explain that the person is not coming back and that they’ll no longer be able to play with them, talk to them, or do any of their previous activities together.
  • Be prepared to broach the subject again. The child doesn’t understand that death is permanent, so they may ask many times over where the deceased person is or when they can see them. It’s normal to have this discussion multiple times with preschoolers.

Elementary school children — Ages 6 to 13

Their understanding of death

  • Tend to associate death with a concept they already grasp, such as spririts or ghosts
  • Understand the idea of death
  • Understand that if it happened to one parent, it could happen to the other one too

How to tell them

  • Explain that the person died by suicide, which means they did something to stop living. Explain that it means the person is dead and won’t be coming back.
  • Try not to judge the child’s reaction and make sure an adult is on hand to acknowledge their emotions. Elementary school children often lack strategies to control their emotions. They may react intensely.
  • If you don’t feel capable of taking on this role, it’s important to take that into account and consider the possibility of getting another adult involved.

Adolescents — Ages 14 to 18

Their understanding of death

  • Generally speaking, adolescents understand that death is permanent and that everyone will eventually die.

How to tell them

  • Explain that the person died by suicide, which means that they took their own life.
  • Adolescents may have a lot of questions. It’s important to answer them to the best of your knowledge. If you don’t know the answer, say so, but suggest that you could try to find out together.

What else to tell a child about suicide

It’s important to tell the truth, but it’s also important to respect the child’s stage of development and needs. It’s enough to tell the child that the person died by suicide. That in itself is a lot to process. Children are capable of communicating what they are ready to hear and if or when they feel they need more information.

Once you’ve talked to the child, you can tell them that you’re available to answer any questions they may have. Tell them that it’s also ok if they don’t have questions. They may have lots of questions right away or they may gradually think of things they want to ask about over time.

What to say if a child asks if it’s their fault

It’s important for the child to understand that the suicide is not their fault. Just as they don’t have the power to bring the person back to life, neither did they have the power to make the person suffer to the point of taking their own life. The child also needs to know that the deceased person still loved them despite the suicide, and that if they hadn’t been suffering so much, they wouldn’t have wanted to leave the child behind.

What do I say to a child when they say they would like to join the deceased?

If a preschooler or elementary school age child say they would like to join the deceased, tell them that they have the right to feel those emotions and to want to see the deceased again, but that this is impossible. 

Supporting a child who is grieving a death by suicide

A child who learns that a loved one has died by suicide needs to grieve, and you may wonder how to help them. Here’s some advice on how to support a child who is grieving a death by suicide.

Are you grieving and need help?

If you need support because you recently learned of a loved one’s death by suicide, information and advice on suicide grief can help you. If you need help, contact a qualified counsellor by text message or online chat or call 1-866-277-3553.