Dear Ask A Therapist, We have a family member who ended her life by suicide. My children are old enough to be curious about this. How should I answer questions about why this happens and whether …
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Dear Ask A Therapist,
We have a family member who ended her life by suicide. My children are old enough to be curious about this. How should I answer questions about why this happens and whether anyone is to blame?
Dear Concerned Parent,
Talking about suicide is difficult. Sometimes this is because we don’t know what to say, we are working through our own reactions or we are afraid of upsetting others.
Talking with children about suicide is a particularly challenging. Many adults are concerned about using developmentally-appropriate language, upsetting children or having to answer the many questions their children may have.
However, when we are able to talk about challenging and painful things, this communicates safety and security to the people in our lives and shows them that we are a safe place they can come to in the future, should they ever want to talk about concerns of their own.
Here are some guidelines:
Choose your context and prepare for the conversation if you can. Be intentional in how and when you share this information with your child. It is important that children learn this information from a caring adult rather than inadvertently learning about the event in another manner. Talking openly and honestly about suicide can decrease stigma and increase your child’s ability to work through the situation. Choosing a quiet and safe environment can also set the stage for a meaningful conversation.
Use developmentally-appropriate and clear language. Talking in vague terms and dancing around the topic can often lead to more questions and confusion from children. However, be aware of your child’s age and ability to absorb this information. Many children do not understand the irreversibility and permanence of death and suicide, so talk clearly but with awareness of your child’s needs.
Be prepared for questions about “why” individuals die by suicide and explain the impact of mental illness without judgment or shame, just like you would explain a physical illness to your child.
Listen and allow your child to respond. It can be difficult for us to listen and answer questions around suicide, but it’s important that children are able to process their reactions and see you as a safe place. It is natural and healthy for children to have questions and to have anxiety around death. Avoid any graphic details but work to be as honest as you are able.
I would also encourage you to expect that this will not be a one-time conversation. As your child processes this information, it is likely they will come back to you with additional reactions and questions. Again, this is a sign you have created a safe environment for your child to work through this painful loss.
Be future-oriented. As your family works through this loss, it may be helpful to talk with your children about how your family communicates when one member is hurting. It may also be helpful to remind your children of all the resources and support that are available for individuals struggling with suicide.
And finally, take care of yourself. The best thing you can do to support your child is to care for yourself and work through your own reactions to suicide. Be kind to yourself and engage in well-being activities as a family.
Tiffany Erspamer, PsyD, LP is a program manager of School Based Services at Community Reach Center in Brighton.
Please submit your questions to Ask A Therapist at AskATherapist@CommunityReachCenter.org This column is for educational purposes only, and opinions are not necessarily those of this Colorado Community Media.
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