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Explaining Suicide to Children - by Tracy Pierson

"What should I tell the children?" A question often asked after the suicide of a loved one. The answer - the truth.

Many people still believe it is best to shield children from the truth, that somehow this will protect them. More often than not, the opposite is true. Misleading children, evading the truth, or telling falsehoods to them about how someone died can do much more harm than good; if they happen to hear the truth from someone else, their trust in you can be difficult to regain. Not knowing can be terrifying and hurtful. We`ve always been told that "honesty is the best policy" and just because the subject is suicide, that doesn`t mean this time is any different.

What children might be feeling after losing someone they love to suicide:

1. Abandoned - that the person who died didn`t love them.

2. Feel the death is their fault - if they would have loved the person more or behaved differently.

3. Afraid that they will die too.

4. Worried that someone else they love will die or worry about who will take care of them.

5. Guilt - because they wished or thought of the person`s death.

6. Sad.

7. Embarrassed - to see other people or to go back to school.

8. Confused.

9. Angry - with the person who died, at God, at everyone.

10. Lonely.

11. Denial - pretend like nothing happened.

12. Numb - can`t feel anything.

13. Wish it would all just go away.

Children and adolescents may have a multitude of feelings happening at the same time or simply may not feel anything at all. Whatever they are feeling, the important thing to remember is that they understand it is okay. And that whatever those feelings are, they have permission to let them out. If they want to keep them to themselves for a while, that`s okay too.

How do we explain suicide to children or young people? It may seem impossible and too complex to even try, but that`s exactly what we must do - try! Their age will be a factor in how much they can understand and how much information you give them. Some children will be content with an answer consisting of one or two sentences; others might have continuous questions, which they should be allowed to ask and to have answered.

After children learn that the death was by suicide, one of their first questions might be, "What is suicide?" Explain that people die in different ways - some die from cancer, from heart attacks, some from car accidents, and that suicide means that a person did it to him or herself. If they ask how, once again it will be difficult, but be honest. (Over)

Some examples of explaining why suicide happens might be:

"He had a illness in his brain (or mind) and he died."

"His brain got very sick and he died."

"The brain is an organ of the body just like the heart, liver and kidneys. Sometimes it can get sick, just like other organs."

"She had an illness called depression and it caused her to die."

(If someone the child knows, or the child herself, is being treated for depression, it`s critical to stress that only some people die from depression, not everyone that has depression. And that there are many options for getting help, e.g. medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.)

A more detailed explanation might be: "Our thoughts and feelings come from our brain, and sometimes a person`s brain can get very sick - the sickness can cause a person to feel very badly inside. It also makes a person`s thoughts get all jumbled and mixed up, so he can`t think clearly. Some people can`t think of any other way of stopping the hurt they feel inside. They don`t understand that they don`t have to feel that way, that they can get help."

(It`s important to note that there are people who were getting help for their depression and died anyway. Just as in other illnesses, a person can receive the best medical treatment and still not survive. This can also be the case with depression. If this is what occurred in your family, children and adolescents can usually understand the analogy above when it is explained to them.)

Children need to know that the person who died loved them, but that because of the illness, the person may have been unable to convey that to them or think about how the children would feel after the loved one`s death. They need to know that the suicide was not their fault, and that nothing they said or did or didn`t say or do, caused the death.

Some children might ask questions related to the morals of suicide - good/bad, right/wrong. It is best to steer clear of this, if possible. Suicide is none of these - it is something that happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with that pain.

Whatever approach is taken when explaining suicide to children, they need to know they can talk about it and ask questions whenever they feel the need, to know that there are people there who will listen. They need to know that they won`t always feel the way they do now, that things will get better, and that they will be loved and taken care of no matter what.

SA\VE - Suicide Awareness\Voices of Education, 7317 Cahill Rd., Edina, MN 55439


Phone 952-946-7998, Fax 952-829-0841,

Copyright ?1996 by Tracy Pierson

Tracy Pierson is Community Education Coordinator for SAVE - Suicide Awareness\Voices of Education. She conducts presentations on depression awareness, suicide prevention, intervention and postvention.

Telling Your Stories - By Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC


I must admit to having a fear that I believe I share with many fathers. I fear that I will some day be insignificant to my children. It`s not as though they`ll completely forget who I am; it`s that what I stand for and what I believe in won`t be a significant part of their lives.

Perhaps popular culture will take over or perhaps they just won`t care. The fear is there because it`s so important to me that my children have a moral compass to live by, and that they have a value system that honors and respects others.

So what are fathers to do? We live in an increasingly complex society and the answers to our children`s questions are neither easy nor simple. Many of these questions are difficult to answer and will show your kids that ideas about what`s right and wrong are not always very clear.

What fathers can do is to wish and hope that things turn out for your children or you can have the courage to make passing on your values an absolute priority in your family. You can challenge yourself to pass on love, faith, courage, freedom--the eternal truths that will have meaning for your children for generations to come.

There will certainly be some bumps along the way and it won`t always be a smooth ride. After all, there is an entire culture out there that`s telling your kids that what they wear and what they buy is the most important thing in their life.

There is a way for fathers to succeed here. They can do it through the stories that they tell their kids and also through the way they are models for their kids.

You can start by taking a different and closer look at the daily events that happen in your life. Your life is filled with significant happenings that you can sometimes pass over if you`re not paying attention or if you get too busy. These events can become stories that your children will cherish.

Why is it important to tell your stories to your children?

One important reason is that it serves to connect your children to previous generations and to help them to feel a part of the larger whole of your family. Perhaps a more important reason is that telling your children your stories helps them to deal with the difficult challenges that they`ll be facing in their life.

The truth is that your kids will go through some real struggles. As parents, it can be painful to watch and it`s seldom useful to try to come to the rescue. What can be helpful to your kids is to know that their father, and other significant people in their lives, have gone through similar struggles and have survived.

Stories are often about struggles and failures. Your children love to hear stories about these struggles because they have them often in their own lives. They know failure and struggle extremely well; that`s a lot of what being a kid is about.

The stories you tell them will ultimately be comforting. That you have had these struggles and have come back and recovered is encouragement to them; your kids will need a truckload of encouragement to navigate their way through life.

It is truly a gift to be able to communicate to your children what is in your heart through the use of stories. Stories can not only be used as a vehicle to pass along your values, but they are likely to inspire your children to repeat the same process with their children.

Here are some suggestions to help you come up with stories for your children:

* Tell stories to your kids when they are the most attentive to them--when they are in bed, or settled down enough so they can sit still for awhile.

* Make sure to include stories of you failing miserably. These are particularly useful to your kids. We`ve all got a few of these, don`t we?

* Have your parents tell your children some of their own stories if they are able--a great way to show the connection that exists between generations.

* Use stories to answer your kids` questions about difficult issues. They need to know that you have faced these issues yourself, and that there are many choices available.

* Realize that you don`t need a history of storytelling in your family to get started, and you don`t need to be a great storyteller. Give some thought to experiences you`ve had that might relate to some of the issues your kids are facing right now or in the near future.

There is a short window of opportunity in which to tell your children the stories of your life. Many fathers fail to tell their stories because of a lack of a story-telling tradition in their family of origin. This can be a wonderful opportunity to begin your own tradition with your own stories.

It is also a great opportunity to contribute to the moral upbringing of your kids by telling them the stories of your life. The lessons within these stories can provide some of the moral anchor for your kids in a world that doesn`t often provide many moral anchors.

Teaching your kids about life through telling your stories will be more effective than lecturing your kids on any day of the week. Your kids will want to hear your stories, the lecturing they can probably do without.

May your stories live on eternally.

Mark Brandenburg MA, CPCC, is a certified personal coach, father, speaker, and workshop leader who helps men to create balance in their lives and to improve their family relationships. He is the author of 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers and can be reached at or at

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