Use language that is age-appropriate and easily understandable
It is important to recognise that the death of a loved one is difficult for children and teens to comprehend, although suicide is particularly confusing and very difficult to understand. It is important to talk openly about suicide in an age-appropriate manner and provide honest facts to them. If you are unsure how to answer a question or how to talk to a child in an age-appropriate manner, it is best to seek advice from either a professional or family and friends.
Sharing memories, telling stories, asking questions and establishing rituals are all healthy ways for children and adolescents to remember their loved one. This is particularly important as some adolescents will encounter social stigma, making them feel uncomfortable or unwilling to talk about their lost loved one. Some children may also benefit from creating a memory book or box, writing stories or poems, or creating an artwork.
Give comfort, hugs and reassurance
Reassure the child that is grieving that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some children or adolescents may worry that expressing certain emotions or asking certain questions will upset others. Reassure them that it is okay to ask questions, express their emotions and grieve in the way that works for them.
Some children and teens bereaved by suicide may be particularly insecure and worried about abandonment, leading to them showing signs of clinginess, fear and less confidence. It is important to be patient with anxiety around separation and continuously provide them with comfort and love. It is also important to reassure the child that they did not cause the death, as they may be asking themselves “Did I cause this to happen?” and feel guilty or responsible for the death.
It is best to be honest
It is important for a child to be told the truth about the death of their loved one in a safe and nurturing space by a main caregiver. At some point the truth will come out and it is best for them to be told the truth in an age-appropriate way. It may be helpful to ask the child what they think “being dead” means and correct any misunderstandings they may have. Avoid using statements that can be easily misunderstood such as “gone to sleep”, as this can cause the child to experience anxiety about sleeping. Remember, it is never too late to tell the child the truth.
Listen without judgement
A helpful way to support a grieving child or adolescent is to listen without judging, interpreting or evaluating. Allow open conversation and respond to the person by simply repeating what they’ve said so that they know they’ve been heard. Sometimes they may not be ready to talk, and in that case, reassure them that you are available whenever they are ready to do so. Some people may avoid talking to someone bereaved by suicide out of fear that you will use the wrong terms or that you will make the situation worse. The silence of other people may reinforce isolation, social stigma and shame that they may already be feeling.