Their age and their emotions will influence what they can take in and understand at this point. You may need to repeat key information later. Telling children and young people early on prevents them from hearing about it inappropriately from others.
To help children and young people come to terms with losing someone to suicide, make sure you:
- Start to deal with your own feelings first. Pause to reflect on and manage your own emotions so you can speak calmly to the child or children in your life
- Explain key facts simply and honestly, but avoid describing specific details about the method of death. These can be very distressing, and can increase the risk of suicidal behaviour if the young person is having their own thoughts of suicide
- Check they understand what has happened. Suicide might be a new word for them
- Let them know suicide is never anyone’s fault and it’s not their fault. This message may need to be repeated over and over again
- Listen. Let them talk about what has happened. It helps them to make sense of it
- Reassure them that no single thing will have caused the person to die, but a mixture of things
- Children may have lots of questions which you can't answer, but it can be helpful for the child to ask them anyway. Explain why some questions cannot be answered with certainty
- The directness of their questions may be unsettling for you, but try to give them space to ask what they need to. They might also ask questions later on, even months or years later - be prepared to listen
- Let them know they are loved, cared for and safe.
Witnessing or discovering a suicide is a traumatic experience for people at any age but may be particularly confusing for children or young people. It’s common for children to feel shocked or numb, or unable to understand or accept what has happened.
Children and young people may experience symptoms of trauma. These can include nightmares, flashbacks, trouble sleeping and physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches.
Symptoms of trauma can be triggered by places, people, sights, smells or sounds which are linked to the person who died or the way they died.
For some, it may be hard to think about memories of the person who has died, and even happy memories can lead to intrusive or upsetting thoughts or images of the way that the person died. These upsetting images may occur repeatedly and lead to efforts to avoid thinking about the person.
Children need help from the adults in their lives to make sense of what has happened to them. Victim Support may be able to suggest how to find appropriate support in your local area, and you can download their resource here. The Aoake te Rā suicide bereavement service may also be able to assist. You may also like to let your children’s school or kura know what has happened and ask how they can help you support your child at this time.
It takes time to heal after the trauma and loss of a loved one. If a child or young person’s sadness and withdrawal from normal activities continues over a longer period of time, and they show any of the following behaviours, you may like to seek further support:
- refusal to go to school
- a change in sleeping habits
- a decrease in appetite
- becoming irritable or easily angered.
This can be a time when others, particularly young people or children, can feel overwhelmed by their loss and may have their own thoughts of suicide. It is very important to reassure them that they can talk with you or others to help them process the emotions they are feeling.
If you are concerned or if you think the young person may be thinking about suicide themselves, talk to your local doctor, medical centre, hauora professional, community mental health team, school counsellor or counselling service.
We recommend the following resources:
- Conversations Matter when telling a child about suicide
- Print at home versions of ‘A book just for me’ and ‘Grieving teens’.
- Connecting through Kōrero (MHF resource)