Few studies have been done on this topic, and mostly the papers written on it have emphasized the destructive consequences of not telling children the whole truth promptly after death. Mostly those studies were done in the 60s and 70s, at a time when it was quite common not to tell children, and the damage done includes distorted mourning processes and developmental interference (Dunne-Maxim, Dunne, and Hauser 1987; Goldman 1996; Grollman 1971, 1990; Hammond 1980; Hewett 1980, Jewett 1982). In "Children of Suicide: the Telling and the Knowing" (Cain, 2002), the author suggests that this approach is not absolute, that there is a difference between being told and knowing, and that the “why” part of the explanation affects its reception in children.
Points raised in the paper, with some paraphrasing:
- Immediately following a parent's death-and for some time thereafter-children's needs are multiple, and often urgent. The most pressing questions can be about meeting basic needs. Who will walk me to school? Who will make our dinner?... In brief, with children-and more so with younger children-our needs or parental needs to share truthfully with the child the specific nature of a parent's death must not be confused with the child's current needs. At times knowing the exact nature of a parent's death is well down the list of bereaved children's felt needs and concerns.
- For many, especially the younger children, understanding of any form of death, indeed death itself, is clouded, bewildering, fragmentary…Though there are a few dissenters, virtually all the systematic empirical studies indicate that children typically do not achieve, until the ages of 7 or 8 to 10 or 11, what we choose to call a mature, realistic understanding of death-its finality, irreversibility, and universality, as well as the recognition that the dead are insensate and the cause of death not necessarily violent.
- When children are confronted (even in distanced, artificial, psychological test materials) with the concept of death linked to someone effectively meaningful to them, as contrasted with the concept of more distant victims' death, children's understanding of death significantly deteriorates.
- Delaying telling for a few months to a year permitted [parents] to approach the initially dreaded telling in far better control of their emotions, adapted to their new circumstances, with more perspective and returning confidence in their parenting.
- It is also the case that some parents clearly do try to tell their child of the specific (suicide) nature of the death, only to meet with uncompromising resistance from the child.
- From a different perspective, parental not telling at times is child-specific rather than suicide-specific. Some surviving parents selectively tell one or more of their children, while not telling others… Usually it is a consideration of age, but also perceived maturity, the child’s ability to cope, the child’s overt interest in knowing more. The child not told may have been a favorite and not likely to handle the notion of that person having killed himself. Telling one sibling and not others means that sibling has to keep a secret and the other will eventually feel betrayed.
- Children who are not told often know.
- Some children who are told do not know. They may have been too young to cognitively understand or they may not have been ready to understand for emotional reasons. They may know the word but not fully compute its meaning. They may be told but not believe. Kids may repress having been told.
- There can be substantial damage done if the “why” is not understood as intended. For example, children told the parent didn’t want to live may feel rejected. Told of a “brain illness”, he may worry that he or the surviving parent will too if they get sick. Told about severe stresses that led to the suicide, a child may come away with the idea that suicide is a legitimate choice. Told it was God’s will, a child may come to believe in a capricious God.
The paper’s author concludes that while few would argue that “the surviving parent candidly inform their children in a timely fashion of the nature of that parent's death, doing so in a manner reasonably matched to the children's developmental capacities, with no more detail than necessary, and a form of explanation least likely to damage the children's positive image (if extant) of the suicidal parent,” there can be damage done in the telling just as there is in not telling. Delays in telling may be warranted.
More than anything the author emphasizes that telling is a process that happens over years, rather than being an event. “For most the tale will need to be retold and retold, and for virtually all, understandings will be repetitively reshaped as influenced by development, life experiences, and accrual of new information about the death.”
Cain, A. C. (2002). Children of suicide: The telling and the knowing. Psychiatry, 65(2), 124-36.