Talking with Children About Suicide

What to say to a child when their friend has died by suicide.

Posted Jul 31, 2019

A question often raised is how much information to give to children about the causes of a loss or death.  Throughout my career in helping families, I have found that honesty is indeed the best policy.  But there is a difference between being ‘honest’ and being ‘brutally honest’ and condemning the other person or their actions.  You need to tell your child enough to satisfy their questions without giving in to the temptation to lecture on morality and behavior.

Consider the tragic situation where a friend of your child has committed suicide.  Parents are often tempted by several options:

  • Give your child an evasive ‘story’ such as ‘The Lord called him home and we cannot question the ways of God.’
  • Lie and say that the child died of ‘natural causes.’
  • Use death as an example to teach a moral lesson to your child.  In doing this you might say something like ‘See how selfish and wrong it is when a person commits suicide?  Look at all the tears and anguish caused by his hanging!  You must never do anything like that!’

These responses basically ignore the concerns and feelings of your child.  Instead, they only assist in evading the discomfort you are experiencing with trying to understand why a person has decided to take their own life.  However, an exploration of causes is exactly what your child requires to help them resolve their grief

It is not necessary to know the answers to all problems.  Telling your child that you don’t know why their friend killed himself is perfectly acceptable when it is the truth.  This will be recognized for what it is and in turn, creates the opportunity for a search for solutions or answers together. 

You will then be able to talk openly about fears, poor choices, and desperate acts.  This, in turn, can lead to a discussion of alternative actions the friend could have taken, such as talking with their friends, counselors, and parents. 

All ideas should be openly examined.  Engaging in this sort of dialogue is perhaps the most valuable course of action you as a parent can take, for you have validated their own fears and worries and role-modeled bringing them out into the open.  You will also have taught your child a method for coping and reacting (i.e. by searching for all possible answers) that applies to not only suicide but many of life’s more complex problems.