Talking to children

Children may have mixed, complex feelings or they may feel ‘numb’. Depending on their age, children may understand death differently. It is important to remember your role as an adult is to be supportive and help them to understand the situation and their emotions.

You naturally might want to protect children from knowing what has happened and to want to tell them an alternative explanation for why the person died. However, even young children can overhear conversations, see visits from strangers and the police, or feel like something is happening. It is better for children to hear the truth from people who are close to them, and who can tell them in a safe, loving way.

Talking about what has happened is a chance to answer any questions and to check that they have understood what has been said. It is also a chance to reassure them they were not to blame. Ideally, a parent would be the best person to tell the child what has happened – if this is not possible, ask someone they trust to explain what has happened.

What a child may feel

  • Abandoned – the person who died left them and/or didn’t love them
  • Guilty – they weren’t a good enough reason for the person to keep living. Or if they had loved them more/been better behaved, the person would keep living. They said mean things to or about the person
  • Afraid –they, and others they love, will die too.
  • Worried – who will take care of them? What if everyone leaves/dies?
  • Sad – they may also feel alone and like they must be brave for the people still alive.
  • Embarrassed – to face other people or to go back to school. They might not know what to say.
  • Numbness
  • Questioning – ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’
  • Angry – with the person who died, God, those who knew them.
  • Denial – pretend like nothing happened.
  • Numb – they don’t feel anything.
  • Rejection – the person who died didn’t want to be with them anymore. If they had loved them more, they could have ‘saved’ the person
  • Wish it would all go away.

If you have already told children a different explanation

Even if you have already told children a different explanation for the person’s death, you can go back and change it. It can be very hard to tell children what has happened or think it’s better to wait until their older, but it is always better to be truthful.

Here is one way you could explain that you’d like to tell children more about what happened:

“You know I told you that your dad had an accident and that is why he died. Well, I’ve been thinking about this and I would like to tell you a little more about how he died. I didn’t know what to say when it happened, it was such a shock. Now I’d like you to know what actually happened that day.

Support and Guidance

You may not know where to start, or worry that you may say the wrong thing while talking to a child about what has happened. Don’t be afraid to speak to someone and access support to help you approach this situation. Winstons Wish is one of the UK’s leading child and young person bereavement support service. As well as offer face-to-face support for bereaved children and families, they also have information, advice and guidance surrounding supporting a child bereaved by suicide, which you can access here. This includes information surrounding ‘How to explain suicide to a child’, ‘Understanding feelings and thoughts‘ and ‘When suicide is in the news‘. You can also talk to Winston’s Wish if you need information or advice surrounding supporting a child bereaved on their helpline by calling 08088 020 021, 9:00 am and 5:00 pm, Monday to Friday.