How to Explain Suicide to a Child: Step-By-Step


Suicide is one of those things that no one wants to talk about in most families. Many people who've lost a loved one to suicide may never come to terms with why their loved one chose to end their life.

There's implied shame and forced silence when dealing with the suicide death of a loved one. Having to break the news to a child can prove even more challenging. 

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Explaining suicide to a child can be complicated. Making matters worse is how the news might affect them based on their relationship to the deceased. A suicide death can create lasting profound emotional and psychological pain for survivors of any age. 

Understanding the more profound reasons some people choose suicide can remain a mystery. However, it's necessary to have these conversations with children whose lives have been affected by a suicide death. Suicide is difficult to understand and always more challenging to explain. 

Dos and Don’ts of Explaining Suicide to a Child

Dealing with suicide death in the family can be devastating to everyone left behind. When you're the one needing to break the news, knowing how to explain suicide to a child is almost never easy, especially when you have the additional challenge of trying to make sense of it yourself. 

Helping others through their emotions as you’re dealing with yours will be just one of the challenges presented. Expect there to be other difficulties in attempting to piece together what happened and when children start asking questions.

One of the most fundamental rules in explaining death by suicide is being honest about what you know. You don’t need to have all the answers, as invariably, you won’t. Keep explanations as simple and honest as you can, especially with what you say to a child when a parent dies

The following list of what to do and what not to do when explaining a death by suicide to a child might prove helpful when you’re at a loss for words.

  • Be thorough with your explanations 
  • Don’t fill in the holes with make-believe
  • Emphasize that they aren’t to blame
  • Remind the child that they were loved by the person who died
  • Use pointed words such as death, depression, guilt, grief, sadness, and suicide
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How to Explain the Concept of Suicide to a Child

How you talk to kids about death can depend on many factors such as their age and maturity levels. Not every child may be mentally and emotionally prepared for dealing with the death of a close loved one. If you need to tell your child that a close loved one's died, you may want to approach the discussion only after you've had some time to process the loss yourself. 

Depending on your child's age, you may want to wait a few hours before telling them to give yourself time to go over everything that's happened and take care of immediate pressing issues with police and medical reports. A very young child doesn't need to know right away. However, older children who are past the toddler stage may benefit from knowing as soon as possible. 

1. Keep explanations real and authentic

Sugarcoating news about a loved one’s death means adding context to their death that makes the circumstances surrounding it more acceptable than the truth. Suicide is an uncomfortable and challenging concept to grasp and explain to a child and even an adult. No one will ever know the complete story as to why someone chose to end their life.

You don’t need to take it upon yourself to fill in the blanks where there’s no explanation for a person’s decision to choose death by suicide. Allow what you know about the situation to guide you in your conversations without finding the need to add more to the story than what you already know. 

2. Provide context through books

Suicide is complicated to explain to a child who’s just lost a close loved one to this type of death. Most children will automatically assume they had a part in their loved one’s decision to end their life. Explaining the concept of suicide may sometimes benefit from the help of children’s books about death that gives examples and explanations using other people’s experiences to make sense of things.

One of the biggest hurdles with a death by suicide is convincing children that it wasn’t their fault, especially when their parent died. Books about death and suicide may help a child see that they weren’t at fault. 

3. Always choose to tell the truth

Eventually, the truth comes out. Children will grow up and finally learn how their loved one died, or someone else in the family might let it slip. Hearing the truth from someone they know and trust is the best way to have these conversations with a child. The truth minimizes any confusion surrounding the death and alleviates any added feelings of anger and distrust later on.

When having these conversations, remind the child that there's help for them whenever needed. Let them know there are people available to them who can help them cope with their grief and sadness. 

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How to Explain the Death of a Loved One By Suicide to a Child

When a family's dealing with a death by suicide, the task of breaking the news to a child is even more challenging than other types of death. Immediately following a suicide, a family faces confusion and profound sorrow as they seek to put the pieces together on this sudden and tragic loss.

The family may need added guidance on what and how to tell children that their loved one has died. Regardless of a child's age and maturity level, it's essential to explain the cause of death to them in an upfront and truthful manner.

1. Be honest and direct in your approach

Many times adults want to skirt the issue of a suicide. They might think of one hundred different ways to tell a child that a loved one has died, all except the truth. The natural instinct is to tell a lie to save the child from the painful truth. However, a child can end up confused about what happened, especially if things don’t add up for them, leading to feelings of hurt and resentment.

That said, you yourself may still be struggling with understanding this type of death. It’s okay to tell a child as much as you know and that you’re still trying to figure out the rest. Assure them that as soon as you learn more, you’ll fill them in. 

2. Use clear language

An adult's first instinct is to protect cchildren from the harsh realities of life. However, shielding children from the truth by using language that skirts the issue around death may be potentially more damaging to a child than protective. Try not to use euphemisms that leave the child without context to understand what happened.

Otherwise, the child might get confused about what happened to their loved one. By being direct, you help a child process the death and what's happened. Try finding a balance of explaining what happened without giving more details than necessary. 

3. Encourage the expression of grief

Everyone has their individual and unique grief reactions and will process their grief in ways that make sense. Some children may not immediately show signs of distress as they're trying to take in what's happened. Others may show immediate signs of grief, sadness, and sorrow. 

There's no right way to process grief, and it's essential to allow each child to express their grief reactions in whatever way comes naturally to them. Validate a child's emotional responses by explaining that it's okay to feel whatever it is their feeling. Responses to grief are as unique as they are and will be different for everyone. 

» MORE: Your family has 500 hours of work to do after you die. Learn how to make it easier.

4. Validate their feelings and concerns

Children might be confused with how they're feeling after learning that a loved one's died. They pick up their grieving cues from the adults around them. If they see the adults suppressing their feelings and emotions, they'll think you'll expect them to do the same. Children learn by example.

Although everyone processes grief differently, young children don't yet know what it means to grieve and process their emotions in healthy ways. Teach young children that everyone's emotions following loss are valid by explaining that the grief process is different. Grief comes in various forms for other people. 

5. Consider some universal phrases

Suicide is one of the most emotionally painful losses to endure. There are never enough explanations to satisfactorily ease away the profound pain and sorrow caused by a loved one’s suicide death. When explaining suicide death to a child, choose your words carefully and cautiously to prevent any feelings of self-blame or hatred. Here are a few phrases for your consideration:

  • “Your loved one was in so much emotional pain and couldn’t think of another way to end that pain and sadness.”
  • “Your loved one loved you very much. Always remember that. But sometimes people get depressed and don’t know what else to do but to end their own lives.”
  • “Your father had a disease called depression which made him feel sad all the time. This has nothing to do with you. He just couldn’t think of a better way out of his sadness than by ending his life.”

Explaining Suicide to a Child

When explaining the suicide death of a loved one to a child of any age, you must emphasize that their death is not the child’s fault. Children of any age will find ways to link their loved one’s death back to something they once said or did that caused their loved one to end their life.

Self-blame is not uncommon following a suicide death of a close loved one. A child needs to know and understand the different reasons people might choose to end their lives, not to try and blame themselves or carry out feelings of guilt. While you may try your best to explain things as concisely and as plain as possible, it is important to support children as they navigate the grief process, especially one caused by something as traumatizing as suicide.

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