Supporting a child or young person when someone important to them may have died by suicide can be extremely hard. The emotional impact of a sudden loss is enormous and adds an extra layer of pain and distress to what is already a devastating situation.

It may sometimes not be clear if someone has ended their own life and the official cause may be given as something else, such as an accident or an open verdict. Here we use the terms 'death by suicide' and 'bereavement by suicide' as many of the same issues and feelings may apply when the cause of death is not clear.

The following information is based on what we have learned from bereaved families we have supported. Everyone’s situation is different, and you can use whatever information here is helpful or relevant to you.

How can a death by suicide affect the way we grieve?

Any bereavement can be immense, but with suicide the grieving process may be more complex, intense and longer, although the actual experiences of grief may be similar to other bereavements. When someone ends their own life it is particularly shocking, because it goes against our natural survival instinct to live and thrive. The suddenness and nature of the death can be deeply upsetting or harrowing and difficult to make sense of.

Some people feel a social taboo in discussing suicide, which can make it a difficult topic to talk about openly. Families and professionals advise people to use the term 'died by suicide' or 'ended their own life' rather than 'committed suicide', which is now outdated and can create stigma historically associated with 'sin' and 'crime'. How we respond to the idea of suicide will be influenced by our own beliefs and culture, our family and upbringing.

What might the first few days be like after someone dies by suicide?

Families we have supported tell us they experience feelings including deep shock, devastation, distress and numbness. The first few days are likely to focus on how the person died, rather than on how they lived. You may have an immediate need to find answers or feel 'frozen' in disbelief. For some people, this is helpful in managing some of the very difficult decisions and tasks that are needed in the first few days. The more shocking the news, the longer you might feel disbelief that it has happened.

How might my family be affected by the death of someone by suicide?

The person who found the person who died may be particularly shocked and impacted by the event. They may experience feelings of deep shock or fear and feel physically ill or numb. They may have flashbacks (where they relive the experience as if it is happening again), have nightmares or be unable to sleep.

Such reactions are to be expected in the first few weeks or months, and their experience may affect their ability to process and create memories. Being supported to talk about what they saw or experienced may help them to start to process what has happened. Some people may not be able to talk about the event, and some may need additional help, for example if they continue to have these symptoms in the longer term. They can seek professional support or an assessment for trauma symptoms through their GP.

Other families supported by Child Bereavement UK have shared their experience of being bereaved by suicide in our film, When someone dies through suicide.

How might professionals be involved?

The police and a coroner may be involved, depending on the circumstances of the death. A coroner’s officer can be a good point of contact and may be able to suggest further sources of support. The police may need to take away some belongings as evidence to help with any investigation, including any note or message that the person may have left. If you wish, you can ask for a photocopy of the note before it is taken away, and you can also ask for the original to be returned after the investigation.

You may need to take part in an initial hearing so that the coroner can issue an interim death certificate. This certificate allows you to make arrangements for a funeral.

There may be approaches from the media but you should feel no pressure to respond if you do not want to. It is important that you do whatever feels right for you and your family.

Why am I experiencing such strong feelings?

Suicide brings particularly strong feelings which are often conflicting, including deep shock, anger, despair, guilt, shame, blame, betrayal, isolation, confusion, and exhaustion. Many people’s grief will stay 'on hold' until after the full inquest, which may be many months ahead.

There may be a desperate need to know why in addition to all the other grief responses to sudden death. Thinking can become circular, endlessly trying to find answers to 'Why?' and 'What if?' questions, searching to make sense of what has happened, which may never be fully understood. The loss of what might have been has an even greater impact when someone has chosen to end their life. The greatest longing can be to go back and change the course of events, to 'replay the film' and have a different ending.

Questions can seem unanswerable. Did we fully know the person who has died if they chose to end their life? How can anyone else understand the depth of pain we are experiencing? What do we do with the confusing feelings of fury, loss and longing? Some people might want to say to the person who has died: 'If you loved me, how could you do this to me and leave me with this mess?'.

Family members may grieve in many different ways. Your grief will reflect the relationship you had with the person who has died, as well as whether the death was completely unexpected or not. The grief of siblings and friends may sometimes be hidden, or their reactions may feel overwhelming. Family structures can be radically disturbed and the grief of other family members and friends can be overwhelming. It may feel that you are supporting others when it is your partner or child who has died. Some people say that they put on a mask to help protect themselves or others from their deep feelings.

The impact of the shock of suicide cannot be underestimated. It is mentally and physically exhausting and the pain can feel like a physical wound. It can shake our confidence and feeling of security in the world and the impact can be all-consuming, leaving almost no mental space for any other activity.

What might help?

Families supported by Child Bereavement UK tell us that finding ways to express thoughts and feelings, without being judged, is one of the things that can help most. Talking within the family or with friends can be helpful, but in some cases may feel too difficult. You may wish to talk to someone through a bereavement support service, or a peer support group.

You can also talk to a professional such as through our Helpline where you can also find out about being referred for bereavement support for you and your family.

Other ways to express thoughts and feelings are by keeping a journal, or through creative activities such as painting or gardening.

Rituals can help with expressing complex emotions. Some rituals, such as a funeral, may be delayed or not be possible due the circumstances or the investigation into the death. You can create your own memorial service or do something simple or private to mark the person’s life such as lighting a candle or planting a shrub. See our resource on ways to remember someone important to you who has died.

Remembering and creating memories is helpful when you are grieving, but for those bereaved by suicide, harsh or frightening images associated with the death may initially block the happier memories of the person. However, trying to avoid these painful feelings can get in the way of the grieving process. It may help to focus on different and positive parts of the life of the person who has died, using photographs and stories about them or by creating a memory box or memory book. Visit our creative activities for grieving children and young people for things to do as a family.

How can I tell others that someone has died by suicide?

How do we find the right words for ourselves, for family, for children and for others? Some people find the word 'suicide' very difficult or impossible to say. However, if any details, including the word ‘suicide’, are likely to appear in the media, social media or in your community, it is important that family, including children, hear this from you or from someone else they trust first.

It may help to practise what you will say beforehand, and to talk it through with someone or call our confidential Helpline for support. You may want to break the news in stages and only say what you need to at each stage. Each stage might be days, weeks or even years apart, depending on what you feel is needed at the time.

Depending on who you are talking to, and how much is known about the death, here are some ideas for words you could use:

'I have something very sad to tell you. [Name] has died. We don’t know how they died yet but there will be an investigation because it was sudden and unexpected.'

'It is too soon for us to say how he died.'

'I can’t say any more about it, but thank you for your concern.'

'[Name] has died. It looks like she ended her own life. We can’t give you any more details, but this is how you can help.'

You may want to tell certain people yourself while close family members or friends can help you by telling other people. Some people may be willing to be given this or another specific practical task to do.

How can I tell my child that someone important to them has died by suicide?

Telling a child that someone has died can be daunting and explaining to a child that someone has died by suicide has particular challenges. Try to tell your child as soon as possible, as children can overhear the news from other sources such as friends or social media. It is best for them that they hear it from someone they are close to and who they trust.

Children’s understanding of death and dying varies according to a number of factors including their age, previous experience of bereavement, cultural background and level of maturity. When telling a child that someone has died by suicide try to use age-appropriate language using simple phrases such a 'he has died' and avoiding using euphemisms such as 'he is in the stars', 'lost' or 'she went to sleep' which can be confusing and worrying for children.

Say that you have something very sad to tell them, and then say something very simple and clear, for example: 'Dad died last night.'

Check your child’s understanding by asking questions, for instance do they understand what 'died' means.

Be guided by their response. They may cry, show they don’t want to hear any more, or ask questions. Answer any questions honestly but don’t give more information than you need to.

How can I support my child when someone dies by suicide?

You know your child best, but here are some ideas on what can help if you are supporting a child when someone dies by suicide.

Give simple, age-appropriate information about what has happened, and answer any questions honestly but without giving more information than they have asked for.

Reassure them that they are in no way responsible for what happened. If it is possible, keep routines as normal as possible and explain any changes. Ensure that planned activities happen, as this will help children to feel secure.

Involve and inform other adults who see your child regularly, such as teachers and parents of your child’s friends, so that messages from other people are consistent. You may find it helpful to share our resource for education professionals with your child’s school.

Acknowledge feelings they might have now and in future, and say that it is OK to have lots of different feelings. Watching our short animated films, Volcano and The Invisible Suitcase with your child may be helpful to a discussion on different feelings and how to manage them.

Help them to find useful ways to express feelings including drawing, writing or playing. See our resource on creative activities for grieving children and young people for some ideas.

Encourage your child to build positive memories of the person, by collecting items such as photos, music on a CD, creating a playlist, or by writing or drawing memories of their own. A memory box or book can become their own special place for this. You may find it helpful to watch our short animated film, Remembering someone special who has died with your child.

Should my child view the body of someone important to them who had died by suicide?

Viewing the body of someone who has died may feel like a very grown-up or difficult thing for a child to do and many adults will understandably have reservations.

It is not unusual, however, for a child to ask to see the person who has died. Children are naturally curious and provided they are well prepared, viewing a body can help them to understand what being dead means.

Children sometimes want to see a body to say goodbye and to be reassured that the person looks peaceful. This may not be possible if there is damage to the body which is distressing to see. Where someone has died in traumatic circumstances, it may be helpful to have a conversation with hospital staff or your funeral director first for guidance as to what might be possible. It may be possible to view, or even touch, an undamaged part such as a hand, with the body covered so that only the hand is exposed. It is important to think beforehand about what to do if the child asks to see the rest of the body. Preparing your child for what they will see and giving a clear but sensitive explanation can help. You might say:

'Because of the way your Dad died, his body is damaged and you might find that upsetting to look at but you can see or hold his hand if you would like to.'

Looking after yourself

Although it may feel difficult, looking after yourself when someone has died is very important. Try to eat well, and make time for any activity that might help you feel better physically. We feel grief physically in our body and improving physical wellbeing can help to reduce feelings of exhaustion, isolation or helplessness. A walk can be as helpful and feel more achievable than a workout in the gym. Physical activity is also a good way of expressing and releasing strong feelings such as anger, whilst avoiding hurting yourself or others. A punch bag, or just punching a cushion, can help adults and children to release angry feelings in a safe way.

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.