Talking to Children

Children may experience grief differently to adults and do not always have the words to express their feelings. It is important to communicate clearly, openly and honestly with children after a loss to suicide.

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Children and grief

Significant loss can diminish a child’s fundamental security and trust. This trust may need to be rebuilt and this takes time. Grieving children will often look for reassurance.

Children do not always have the words to talk about what they are experiencing. They often express feelings of sadness, fear or anger through their behaviour. Usually they are not being naughty, rather, they are saying, ‘I am missing mummy, I am scared, I don’t understand what is going on.’

It is important to check out these feelings and to talk about them. Remember that children learn from adult behaviour and seek permission from adults. This kind of communication can help to strengthen family bonds and reduce individual isolation.

‘If my daddy has died that means mummy can die too and who will look after me?’ Sometimes children become, ‘little mum’ or ‘little dad’ and assume adult responsibilities. It is important to acknowledge changes that have happened in the family as a result of the loss and to work out appropriate tasks. Grieving children still need to experience being children.

Play is natural to children. It helps children regain a sense of control and mastery. It is a safe way of giving expression to what is happening ‘within’. It is a way to express all kinds of feelings. Play offers adults the opportunity to talk with children about safe ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings.

Children’s concepts of death

Children tend to say things directly, simply and clearly and their stage of development influences their understanding of death. There are three concepts that are important for children to grasp:

  • Death is irreversible and final; it is not ‘a trip’ from which they will return.
  • Death brings about non-functionality – life and body functions stop, the person is not asleep.
  • Death is inevitable – everyone will die some time.

Most children understand these concepts by the age of 9 years. Studies indicate that children’s understanding of death is related to age, verbal ability and cognitive development. Children who are bereaved before the age of seven are likely to come to a partial understanding earlier.

It is important to avoid using euphemisms such as ‘sleeping forever’ or ‘left us…’ as these phrases cause confusion for children.

Common grief responses in children


Being more dependent on parents, clingy, not wanting to go to school, feeling sick more often, wanting to sleep with parents, needing extra help with tasks normally done alone, withdrawal. There may be themes of death in their stories or play.


Shortened concentration span, confusion, difficulty in making decisions, nightmares, lack of self-esteem.


Disbelief, numbness, sadness, disorganisation, panic, helplessness, anger, guilt, fear, desire to be an innocent child again, anxiety about others dying.


Headaches, tiredness, stomach aches, lack of energy, hyperactivity, restlessness, nervousness, appetite changes, sleeping changes.


Why did this happen? Where is Daddy now? Where is heaven? What do you do there? How is God looking after Mummy?

Communicating with children

The idea of talking with children about death can be difficult; when the death is by suicide it can leave many people feeling out of their depth. Sometimes people think they should wait until the children are ‘old enough’ to understand what’s happened.

From our experience over many years of working with children, we know that even quite young children benefit from clear, open and honest communication. Children will take in and understand as much as they are able according to their age and stage of development.

Keeping the truth from children can create difficulties for them. Children will often sense that something is being kept from them and this can create anxiety and insecurity. They may wonder what it is they are not being told and begin to imagine all sorts of possibilities. Even if a child has been a witness to the suicide, they will still need information and an opportunity to have conversations about what has happened.

If they haven’t been told, when children do eventually find out, there can be a sense of mistrust as they may also wonder what else is being kept from them. It can undermine their sense of safety. Being included and told what has happened establishes trust and strengthens relationships which is important for wellbeing and security. Children often feel they have a right to know how someone they loved died.

To find out more about talking with children and young people you can read an online copy of our booklet, Tell me what happened, or you can purchase a copy.

Ways of supporting a young person

  • sit quietly with the young person while they talk, cry or be silent.
  • make opportunities to share memories or look at photos of the person who has died.
  • acknowledge and believe the young person’s pain and distress.
  • reassure the person that grief is a normal response to loss and there is no wrong or right way to grieve.
  • don’t panic in the absence or presence of strong emotional responses.
  • be aware of your own grief and/or feeling of helplessness.
  • don’t put a limit on the process of healing. Be available over a long period of time.

Living with the experience of grief

The following are some creative ways which may assist in living with the experience of grief:

  • write a letter to the person who has died or make a card and add a message
  • create images that express something of your experience – have a go at using clay or paints, do a drawing or make a collage
  • make a playlist of songs that are meaningful
  • talk to people who have known the person who has died
  • make a memory book about the person who has died. Include photos, poems, sketches, qualities, sayings, stories
  • prepare for special days and holidays. Christmas, birthdays and anniversaries can be difficult times. Plan a visit to the cemetery, light a candle or maybe spend some time at the deceased person’s favourite place. Keep a journal. Fill it with your thoughts and memories. Take time to reflect on your journey.

For specific information about how to speak with young people about suicide go to Tell me what happened.

You can also access Book 3 of Growing Around Grief, Growing Around Grief is a five-book toolkit developed by the South Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network to provide support for people in south east Melbourne affected by suicide and sudden loss.  Access the full Growing Around Grief toolkit.