Feelings Children Experience After a Suicide


BY: Diane Snyder Cowan

CATEGORY: Grief and Loss

​This post is about suicide – specifically explaining the suicide of a loved one to a child. Suicide is a difficult topic to speak about. It’s hard for adults to understand and difficult to explain to children. Children can cope better with difficult topics and feelings when they are able to talk openly about them.

Here are some common feelings children experience after a suicide:
  • Abandonment
  • That the death is their fault
  • Afraid they will die too
  • Worried  someone else they love will die
  • Guilt, sadness, embarrassment
  • Confusion, shock, anger, loneliness, or numbness.
Beginning the conversation could be the most difficult part, but once you start you are on your way. Here are some tips to help you:
  • Find a place where you can talk quietly without interruption.
  • Include another adult to increase your comfort level.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Talk in a calm, straight forward manner and use age-appropriate language.
  • Begin by  saying, Johnny, sit down, I have something I need to tell you. If there is more than one child, you can tell them together but in a way that the youngest can understand. The older ones can ask more questions later.
  • Recognize that very young children (three and under) don’t understand the permanence of death. You can say, Daddy has died and I am sad. I will take care of you.
  • Offer more information to children ages three to six. You can say, Daddy has died and I am very sad.  That’s why you’ve seen me crying. Dead means the person can’t eat, talk or hear. The body has stopped working and cannot be fixed.
  • Provide reassurance. If the child asks how Daddy died, you can say Daddy died by suicide which means he killed himself. The rest of the conversation will depend on the child’s response. That may be plenty of information for the moment.
Older children will have more direct questions. Here are some possible answers:
  • He had an illness called depression. It’s different from having a bad day.
  • I don’t know – I wish I knew.
  • He didn’t know how to get help or see any other way to stop the pain.
  • Suicide is complicated. We’ll never know exactly what went through his mind or what he was feeling, but he must have been in horrible pain.
It’s important to remember that the way depression impacts our lives varies greatly from normal reactions of sadness to extreme and persistent sadness that limits our day-to-day routines.

Extreme and persistent sadness is called clinical depression. In most cases, clinical depression is successfully treated by medical treatment and psychotherapy. Even so, a small number of people die as a result of depression. Make sure to reinforce that suicide is not a solution. Instead, there are always other choices to solve problems and access support.

Children need to know that the person who died loved them and they need to be assured over and over that they did not cause the death. Keep in mind that children are intermittent grievers. Be prepared to talk about the suicide several times. You may have this conversation multiple times over the days, weeks and years that follow. You may have it in small doses throughout the child’s development. Their need for information will transform over time.

Please know that you do not have to grieve alone. Consider individual counseling and/or support groups. They can be very helpful for you and your child. Be kind to yourself and available to your child.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


About Diane Snyder Cowan​
Diane Snyder Cowan is the director of Western Reserve Grief Services.

She oversees the hospice and bereavement programs and expressive therapy. Diane is a Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Administrator and a Board Certified Music Therapist.

She currently serves as the Section Leader for the Bereavement Professional Section of the National Council of Hospice and Palliative Professionals and previously served on the Board of Directors of the Certification Board for Music Therapy.

Diane has presented on music therapy and grief and loss throughout the country and has written for many publications on music therapy and on grief and loss.

She strives to provide support and education to grieving individuals and those who work with them.