How do you explain suicide to small children?


Protect children, but never underestimate their insight.

02-08-13-41-44 / 26


Hello there Diner,

Firstly, I’m deeply sorry that you find yourself in this situation. Explaining the darknesses of life to young ones you love is never an easy thing, since they are so often full of light and freedom. However, as so many things are in life, sometimes it is a necessity. My hope is that this Fortune will help you some, both in your explanation of what has happened, and also in alleviating any worry that you may subtract from the light of innocence within your children. To this end, I’d like to offer you reassurance that that light is hardy. It has been there before, it is there now, and it will be there again, despite this news.

I am now going to draw from a useful resource written by psychologists Crossley and Stokes, who help to understand the active process of explaining a suicide to young children. The most important thing to take from their writings is that honesty is imperative. Despite a perfectly normal instinct to protect children from said darknesses, truth is always the way to go. If truth takes days, so be it. If truth takes years, so be it too. But, rest assured Diner, you are protecting a child more by offering them your honesty, than by offering them a fabricated version of events. Crossley and Stokes suggest an explanation that occurs over four stages, which, again, do not necessarily have to happen in quick succession.

1. Explain to the child that the person has died and is no longer with us. Do not be afraid to use words like “died” and “death,” even though they might seem scary. Spoken in a safe and comfortable environment, these words can be less spiky and more honest. Let the child ask questions, and answer them if you know the answer. Let them understand slowly that the person is not coming back.

2. Give a simple explanation of how they died, avoiding graphic or overly complex descriptions. This might seem like the most counter-intuitive step Diner, but the harm caused if the child were to accidentally overhear or piece together anything they didn’t already know would be much greater than that which they are likely to experience during this conversation.

3. You might explain that the person took their own life. Most people choose to explain mental illness as an "illness in the head, just like any other illness, except you can’t see it.” Phrases such as "it was difficult to live” are ones that are often chosen at this stage. It’s important that you allow questions here too, and open the space as a safe space for discussion.

4. Lastly, and over time, you might continue opening up that discussion. Talk about ways in which it is possible to deal with feelings of hopelessness and sadness, and help the child to understand that the event is no one’s fault, and that they always have a place to talk about what they might be experiencing.

You will know when the child is ready to move from stage to stage - take it at an appropriate pace for the age of your child, and don’t be afraid to share your own confusion and sadness, too. Remember, a child’s light is a sturdy one.

Good luck Diner.

 

Reference:

 

Crossley, D., Stokes, (2001). Beyond the rock: Supporting a child who has been bereaved through suicide. Winston’s Wish. 31

 

A big thanks to Ms. Vix Jensen for providing her pen and empathy to today’s answer. She’s published in Cosmopolitan Magazine UK and has other fictional pieces in various London literary journals. Her most recent published piece is a non-fiction article on acquiring independence.