How to help a child when a parent commits suicide

A parent’s death is always painful for any child, but a parent’s death by suicide, especially a mother’s suicide, research has shown, will have an even more devastating and disturbing effect on the child. How successfully they will recover depends on the way the child is supported emotionally all the way through processing their feelings. 

Most children are very resilient, and with the correct help and support, they can recover their mental health. You see, a death by suicide or any other shocking death (sudden accident or even murder) will generate very scary thoughts for a child – no matter what age.

Images, memories, thoughts will play in the child’s mind, or – he will try to block them out. Sometimes, in the case of a suicide, the child may have thoughts and feelings toward the parent that makes him or her feel very guilty and they may want to deny them. The child will undoubtedly feel rejected, abandoned with thoughts like “Why did my mother kill herself – didn’t she love me enough to stay and care for me?” 

There may be many reasons why a person kills themselves. Depression. Alcoholism. Drug addiction. Knowledge of a terminal disease. However, whatever, the reason, a child needs to be able to have loving memories of the parent they have lost – despite any other flaws they may have had.

The biggest problem arises when the child is unable, or encouraged, by perhaps the other parent or grandparents, to get those feelings out! Also, for the child (depending on age and maturity of course) to understand perhaps the reasons why. If a mother has committed suicide due to depression, we would expect the child to be able to understand that mum had been suffering from a mental illness, a sickness in her brain, and THAT’s what caused her to die. Research has shown that children who are under the age of 18 when their parent commits suicide are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves later in life. This shows how important it is to ensure that the child gets the support he needs. We are not just treating the child for grief of a parent, we are also attempting to break the cycle of suicide in families.

So, what can I do to support a child after a suicide in the family?

Well the first thing is to make sure that all their questions are answered as these will be the thoughts that are playing over and over in their heads. They need to understand that their feelings of anger/guilt/frustration/sadness are normal, and no one is going to judge them for having what they think are bad feelings about the parent. If the parent who commits suicide has been seriously mentally ill for a period of time, perhaps drinking lots of alcohol or taking drugs, the child may more than likely feel relief that it’s over, but then will feel guilty for having those feelings! However, that’s fine – he needs to be allowed to feel those emotions to be able to more forward in a healthy way. 

The child also needs to know that he is not to blame. He may have thoughts like “If only I had come straight home from school and not stopped at the shop – mum may still be alive” or “ if I had been better behaved, my dad might not have killed himself”  We do need the child to understand that everyone had done their best to help that person, he was ill. 

If the routine gets back to normal after the death and funeral, this is the best thing for the child. Getting back to school and normal life as much as possible.

What do I need to watch out for?

  • If the child refuses to go to school
  • Sleep issues
  • Withdrawal from everything he used to enjoy
  • If the child refuses to do the things he used to do with that parent
  • Blocking certain events and activities he used to do with that parent
  • Changes in the child’s appetite

Children who are normally quite anxious, or who have experienced other traumatic events, are more likely to respond badly. Also, youngsters who don’t have a strong network of supporters to help them through, like grandparents, aunts and uncles or even older siblings, can take much longer to recover.

Ultimately, when we think of a child going through the loss of a parent to suicide, we also need to consider that the family may have been struggling with mental health issues, addiction to alcohol or drugs, for many years, which would have certainly also caused extensive stress and anxiety, so the child will almost always have lived on “ high alert” – imagine always having that feeling of “ flight, fight or freeze” so we need to ensure that the child has ongoing support, with therapy if necessary, and the continuing support of the family/school/friends for as long as is necessary. 

If you or a family member need more advice on this very difficult topic – do contact me at

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