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My children's father committed suicide 10 years ago, when they were aged 9, 3 and 1.

At the time of his death I did not want them to know how he died, but it became such public knowledge I was forced to disclose this to my oldest child, as I did not want him to find out at school.

Growing up, I had a friend whose father had died and it wasn't until he turned 18 that his mother disclosed to him that his father had committed suicide. This always stuck with me, as he was shocked, but also at a better age to deal with the concept.

Prior to their father's death, my children did not know of the concept of suicide. Even though they had a paternal aunt who had suicided before they were born and later a maternal uncle's death was deemed suicide (this was the year following their father's death).

So suicide is a huge issue in our family.

Is there any research into disclosing the cause of death of a parent when it is suicide?

What are the pros and cons with early disclosure or waiting until children are older?

I am not interested in anecdotal evidence or opinion, but expertise and any research on this subject.


I asked this question here:

How to help children cope with a parent's suicide?

  • I have asked a few questions today, will refrain from more questions for a while – user21179 Nov 19 '13 at 3:59
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    Don't worry about asking too many questions too much Skippy. If you have them, you have them. This is a REALLY tough one! Are there any support groups or therapist in your area that might have access to some good info for you? – balanced mama Nov 19 '13 at 21:34
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    @balancedmama this is a retrospective question.. they have known for a long time now. tx for the support :) I've often wondered about this – user21179 Nov 19 '13 at 21:35
  • @balancedmama hm with the suicide ones, I have the voice of experience, but don't really know the answer to this one.. I could research it.. I have two uni exams next week and will focus on answering some Qs here and on Psychology & Neuroscience after they're over.. my parenting skills have been challenged over the years to say the least, but perhaps this makes me helpful to others :) – user21179 Nov 19 '13 at 21:39
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    @balancedmama yeh we are. We have our moments, but we have muddled through..and continue to do so. They are all heavily into to martial arts, by choice, my oldest son teaches it.. so we're lucky in that regard.. it keeps them focused.. I didn't know u were a nurse, explains a lot, hard work. I worked in a hospital and admire nurses. – user21179 Nov 19 '13 at 21:44
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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.

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    Excellent source Mary Jo, a really good answer ty telling is a process that happens over years, rather than being an event. a good concept and helpful for people a few years down the track from the death – user21179 Nov 23 '13 at 7:47
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Personal experience, I told my son when he was 19, that his father had died 14 years ago, not in the car accident, as he'd grown up believing, but by committing suicide. At the age of 4 I thought the death of his father was enough to bear. I moved 250 miles away. On reflection I would do the same again. My son has a very limited and happy memory of his dad, he bears me no ill will and is thankful I kept it from him.

I think there is no right or wrong answer here. The parent who is left to bring up the child or children should be supported in their decision I have asked my son, 6 months after telling him, if he is angry, annoyed or reflective about his new knowledge, and he tells me no. In fact he states he is grateful he did not know. My husband committed suicide, I don't understand it, therefore I found it unnecessary to spend years trying to explain it to a child.

I attended a suicide group twice after my husband died, and to be honest was horrified at how many people were still attending the group years later. I asked my son if he would like to talk to anyone or attend a group his answer was an emphatic god no. My focus was and is I cant change what happened, I chose to live not live with suicide.

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No studies here. Personal experience and science-based observation. My mother is and always has been a brilliant and disturbed person. I knew my grandfather, her dad, was brilliant and died when I was three. Mom's only sibling died of cancer at age 18 a year before. I skip an abundance of paragraphs and notes here...

At the age of thirty-four, mother tells me that grandpa did not die of diabetes, as proffered, but of a gruesome suicide. To this day decades later I am still sorting the events and confusion that misinformation has placed in my life choices. And whatever of it I have passed on to my offspring.

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    So what is your answer to the "when" question? You only explained your situation but not what you'd recommend for others. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 1 '14 at 8:18
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The child needs to hear it from the other parent or a trusted family member. However, the child doesn't need to know all the details at a young age. It should be discussed that the parent ended their own life because of mental illness. This doesn't mean you tell them every grousome detail of the event.

I have been dealing with suicide since I was child. Many people I know have attempted or succumbed to death by suicide. Nothing in life was ever withheld from me. I was told about death and never feared death. I watch tv and some of my favorite shows are crime shows. I like to figure things out and how events happen.

I am a pastor and specifically deal with children's ministry and training other children's ministers. One of the things I have never taught on is how to deal with death and suicide in children's ministry. This is going to be a new chapter in my ministry training classes. Children don't want to be lied to. They want to know the truth. We lie to our children about so many things. Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and now death? That is a different subject though. The point is; Our kids need to hear the truth from an early age. They need to know that their parents always tells them the truth. Even when the truth hurts we need to tell them the truth.

I am dealing with a suicide right now of a 30 year old lady who shot herself in the head in front of her 2 & 4 year old. These kids witnessed this with their own eyes. You can't just sweep this under the rug. The 2 year old probably won't understand or remember this for a long amount of time. The 4 year old almost 5 was in the room where the lady was at. He is going to have this image in his mind forever. This child will be scarred forever. This is a hard situation to deal with.

Irregardless of whether the child saw what happened or not they need to know what happened. THE TRUTH! They will hear the truth from someone and it will mean a whole lot more coming from those closest to them. You will have to explain things as the child gets older and that's ok. We learn things on different levels like the petals of the onion. As we get bigger we can understand more than when we are small. The onion starts off small and as it grows it adds petals to itself. They are different layers of the same thing.

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I know this one from experience. For younger kids, "Daddy made a bad decision" works particularly well. When the children reach an age where they want to know more, they'll ask directly. If they're aware enough to ask the question, they're ready for an honest, simple answer. Just the facts. They should be told it was not their fault. They will have a few night terrors and may develop some obsessive habits for a time. There is little evidence for efficacy of grief counseling in kids under 6. They don't conceptualize death very well. The overt symptoms should mostly resolve in about 6 months.

As an aside, kids that find their parent, or those who are present when the medical examiner arrives, are best served by being allowed to say goodbye and "I love you." Cover up anything gruesome first.

Older kids are more complicated. It's hard enough being an adolescent without anything traumatic. Expect anger, irritability and limit testing in all areas. Daughters of deceased fathers tend towards promiscuity (but I think "promiscuous" defines most teenage boys at baseline ...).

It helps for teenagers to see the death certificate; they may be distrustful of the surviving parent. I think it's too variable to say "you should do it this way" but I don't think you can go wrong with open and honest.

You may begin to see mental illness such as mood, anxiety, or psychotic disorders. It's important to monitor. At the first sign of a real problem, I would recommend a psychiatrist.

  • You have some really good content here, but some content that you're better off supporting than just stating as if fact; I wish I could upvote. – anongoodnurse Mar 6 '17 at 23:28

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