Telling Children about the Suicide Death of a Parent
(If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Suicide Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States, please call 1-800-273-8255)
Q&A with kids who have lost a dad from suicide
The night before my husband chose to take his own life, I heard Psalm 68:5, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” Because God charted the next season of our lives with this promise, I was able to gently repeat this promise to my children as the way of sharing this life-changing news with them,
“You have a new daddy—God promises to be a Father to the fatherless!”
It was hard to tell this information to myself so I knew right away that God had entrusted me with a huge responsibility in telling my children. They would always remember this pivotal moment of their lives. God was entrusting suffering into their lives at these young ages as well. We were really crossing a holy moment and the sovereignty of God and His promises would be our foundation.
When telling children difficult information, I heard it once said that you should insert only what the suitcase of their hearts can hold. It is important to tell your children the facts but be careful to share only what is age-appropriate. My older children (ages 8, 9, and 10) were told as little as possible, but enough for them to feel they had sufficient information to satisfy their curiosity. Telling my younger children that daddy died was all they could handle. They did not need to know how he died because they just could not understand at the ages of 1-6. Sadly, like sharing the secrets of sex, people will talk, and you want to make sure that you are the one to delicately and lovingly share the details of this news with your children.
Grief over a suicide death is complex and will manifest in many ways for children. Grief may lie dormant for years until their understanding catches up with their reality. I knew my children would eventually want and need to know the story of their dad; therefore, I took time to write out the story and details of his choice to the best of my understanding and experience and let it sit until it was time to share with them. I took time to share this information with them before they left home after high school. It is never easy to discuss but is important enough to share so that the enemy doesn’t continue to use this scheme against future generations.
What would I do differently today?
I’m not sure that I would change anything as I prayed that God would direct my steps and I believe that He did. I found comfort in the promise that God was their father. I trusted also that He is the great counselor even though God will often use others to speak into a life. The impact of this sin is deep and long-term. Getting wise counsel from the Word of God is important. My daily prayer for my children is that God would restore their soul from their walk through the valley of this death.
How are the children impacted by all of this?
Here is a Q&A with my children almost twenty years after the suicide death of their dad.
Q: When and how did your mom tell you your dad committed suicide?
Abi (age 10 when her dad committed suicide/age 30 today): I think I learned details 3 days after he died. Slowly, over time I think I got a lot of my information by asking questions. It was probably by 5 years after his death that I had a good idea of what happened.
Kayla (age 9 when her dad committed suicide/age 28 today): I remember knowing that Daddy had killed himself right away – maybe that very night? For sure within the first week. I don’t remember the exact way this news was shared, but I do remember that she answered every question we had and didn’t try to hide information from us. I was 9 years old – I think age plays into this in a big way. A 4 or 5-year-old probably can’t process this at all, but an older child needs to be given all the information that they are able and willing to carry at the time. Also, if mom doesn’t tell them, they will probably try to find out from someone else.
Christieanna (age 6 when her dad committed suicide/age 26 today): I think I overheard the police say that they found him, and he had committed suicide. When mom told us that we had a new daddy, I don’t remember her saying he had committed suicide, but I already knew. I’m not sure I actually remember having anyone tell me the facts. I remember the way in which she told me and my siblings, but as far as the mechanism of injury, I’m not sure where I got that from. I assume a sibling told me, or maybe mom did that night and it was just a blur.
Isaac (age 5 when his daddy committed suicide/age 24 today): Really the only thing I remember is all of the kids sitting together in the downstairs living room and she came down and said, “Kids you no longer have an earthly daddy, but God is your Father now.”
Evan (age 4 when his daddy committed suicide/age 23 today): I do not remember exactly when my mother told me the details of my father’s death. I have asked questions of deeper levels as I have grown and matured, and my mom has always answered my questions to the best of her ability. I think a child needs to know the truth when he/she is ready. Some children are ready to receive information sooner than others. Just tell the truth. For me, being told the truth young was more important to me than figuring out the truth later and feeling like I’ve been lied too.
Micah (13 months old when his daddy died/age 20 today): She told us over time, I think she also helped us to understand through books that explained death in a way we could understand. I also remember her answering our questions whenever we would ask.
Q: What was your first response?
Abi (age 10 when her dad committed suicide/age 30 today): I don’t remember what I said, but I remember being surprised as I did not really understand. Suicide was, and always has been, something that seemed super intentional instead of something that could be accidental.
Kayla (age 9 when her dad committed suicide/28 today): I was shocked, devastated, and so confused. I felt completely blindsided by his death, and the way it happened.
Isaac (age 5 when his daddy committed suicide/age 24 today): Sadness at the loss but not much more than that because I was too young to understand what any of it meant.
Brandon (age 8 when his dad committed suicide/age 27 today): The first response is shock. It’s very surreal and hard to explain. Initially you just run the words through your mind and try to break down what you’re hearing, then you go through the waves of emotions. That first year really, you don’t hardly feel anything, you just keep thinking he’s going to walk in the door.
Christieanna (age 6 when her dad committed suicide/age 26 today): I remember my first response was watching everyone else fall apart. My older sisters were wailing, the younger siblings started crying too, but I think that cried just because everyone else was. I don’t know if the younger two actually understood what was happening. I remembered that my mom was strong, and we were about to start down a life altering journey together.
Q: How have you handled this reality as time went on?
Brandon (age 8 when his dad committed suicide/age 27 today): It’s a wound that never quite heals completely. It’s always tender. To this day, I can’t hear, see, or talk about suicide without cringing. I think a lot of that is ok, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to become calloused to it. As I’ve gotten older, the gravity of his decision weighs on me. It’s much more distant as a child, but as I’ve grown, it becomes more tangible, like you can actually feel the reality of the decisions he made.
Christieanna (age 6 when her dad committed suicide/age 26 today): I have handled the reality of my dad committing suicide differently over the years. When I was younger, I questioned God a lot and asked Him how it could be love to take away someone I wanted to be there. I also questioned why we missed the signs, and if we could have done anything differently. I remember I would always daydream about what I would have done if I was there with him, and how I would have attempted to talk him out of it. My ideas weren’t that bright as a six-year-old, but I knew I would tell him he was worth it and that he was enough for us. I thought of different ways I would have stopped him if given the chance. I think that was my way of trying to cope by feeling I could have stopped it, and not fully understanding that the Lord had allowed it and I would not have been able to change any of it.
As time went by, the suicide part became less and less of a big deal, it was more just the fact that he was gone period. I think the reality of him killing himself is a push for me to make sure I let people know they are loved, and it’s help me see that there are signs everywhere. People are hurting, and one smile could change what they decide to do later on in their day.
I think that because I have faith, I actually do understand. I understand that my dad was in bondage, and genuinely thought that it would be easier for us if he weren’t there. Do I agree? Absolutely not, but I do understand his thinking, and hope that the next person I know who starts down this path will understand my thinking in that they are worth being alive, loved, and living.
Isaac (age 5 when his dad committed suicide/age 24 today): Probably easier than some. God is faithful over all. Yes, it’s a horrifying experience to lose a parent, but I don’t think it’s healthy to continually live in our past, but to learn from it. Accept what’s happened and allow God to continue to write your story.
Amy (2 ½ when her dad committed suicide/age 22 today): I handle it differently depending on the season. I’ve never been mad at God, though. I know He is sovereign and took my dad away for a reason that I may never understand. It has always hurt me that he thought he was not worthy enough to live though. Nobody should have to feel like that.
Q: What have you learned regarding your dad’s choice after 19 years? What have you learned regarding God and this choice?
Abi (age 10 when her dad committed suicide/age 30 today): I have struggled with the intentional selfish abandonment of it and that has affected me in ways I’m still learning. I do not feel much compassion for his choice at all, although I can empathize with him. I trust the Lord fully and know that he could have saved him, and in his sovereignty chose not to. I agree with God that he made the best choice for daddy and for our family. I am at peace with what happened and continue to trust the Lord and have the comfort of knowing that he holds all of our futures in his hand.
Kayla (age 9 when her dad committed suicide/age 28 today): I know now that my dad’s choice was multifaceted – the enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy. His hand in my dad’s choice cannot be overstated. He lays traps of temptation and comes like a lion to devour. I also know that my dad was completely responsible for his own choice. He was in bondage to sin that he was not able to escape, or maybe he didn’t hate it bad enough to do the hard work of repentance and surrender and learning to really walk by the Spirit and not carry out the desires of the flesh – I don’t know. Now as an adult, and parent, I see a level of selfishness in his decision that I never thought of as a child. I also know that at the end of the day, the sovereignty of the Lord rules over ALL. Even in this, God was there – He did not turn a blind eye, nor did He cause evil, but He was there and I know He cried first.
Brandon (age 8 when his dad committed suicide/age 27 today): From my dad’s choice I’ve realized the implications of sin. Sin will never let you go apart from the saving grace of Jesus. And if you let it, you can be turned over to it. I think with my dad, God allowed him to be turned over to his sin because time and time again he made the decision to turn back to it. I believe he allowed himself to get into a pit of darkness and lies that he was almost a walking dead man, and the action of suicide was just fleshing that out. I’ve learned that God is sovereign and if you can’t “trace His hand, trust His heart.” He really does do all things for our good and His glory… that’s a big thing to say 18 years later because that was preached to me in the moment, but I’ve now lived long enough to validate the truth for myself.
Isaac (age 5 when his daddy committed suicide/age 24 today): I’ve learned that if you don’t take care of what may be eating away in the inside, it has the potential to ruin your life. I know dad was a good man who just let the enemy continue to feed a lie to him that he eventually believed. Regarding God it’s the same as above. He is sovereign. Everything that happens is within His plan. I’ve not been much of one to question ‘why’, as much as I have ‘what now.’ So now that I know what happened, how am I going to use that to live my life tomorrow. How will I use what God allowed to minister and lead others?
Evan (age 4 when his daddy committed suicide/age 23 today): Over time I have learned the severity of my father’s sin and how it has affected not just him, but many people linked to him. It’s a big deal, and I know it was a spiritual battle for him. We all deal with sin, and we will all be accountable to how we fought against sin. My dad’s story has stood as a lesson for me and how I will personally fight sin. But through my dad’s story, I have been able to use the ugly parts to reflect on the beautiful parts of God’s forgiveness and grace. It’s given me opportunities to warn others against the dangers of meddling in sin. God receives the glory for the good and bad in our lives, and that’s where I have landed after 19 years. We do not have permission to write our own stories, but we absolutely do have the ability to control how we respond to our adversity and what we do with it.
Amy (age 2 when her daddy committed suicide/age 22 today): I have learned that it is dangerous to mess around with big sins like my dad did. I’ve learned that it never gets easier telling someone that my dad killed himself. I now know that I am always going to grieve his death through the different seasons I go through. And I learned that God allows certain things to happen in order to glorify Himself and draw me closer to Him.
Q: What do you feel is the best way/time to tell a child of this kind of death of a father?
Abi (age 10 when her dad committed suicide/age 30 today): I think the least amount of information at first is the best, although all information should be shared over time. Any amount of info, large or small, will be difficult to process. I have had friends and family members share very gruesome details about the method my dad chose over the years, and of course have come across too many movies and TV shows in which this is common. I always sympathize with other people who have lost family members this way, and I’m thankful it was probably not a super gory discovery. Although regularly I think of the men who found my dad and pray for them, I doubt they have been able to fully recover from finding him. This info is always gutting, always devastating. But I would rather hear it from family members first instead of finding out myself later. I don’t think it matters what method a person chooses, the hardest part is that it is a decision, not an accident.
Brandon (age 8 when his dad committed suicide/age 27 today): Make sure you have support around you. Maybe wait until family comes in to town etc. It was very helpful having people in the house during the first few months. It would’ve been very dark, lonely, and sad if it was just our family.
Isaac (age 5 when his daddy committed suicide/age 24 today): Probably just tell them straight up and as soon as possible. You don’t want them to hear rumors or stories from anyone else.
Evan (age 4 when his daddy committed suicide/age 23 today): Knowing God is sovereign and in control is important to grasp as a child. Understanding that it was God’s plan for me to be a fatherless young man was important for me to know right away. The details of the story can come later when I’m more matured if/when I need them.
Q: What would you want to say to a child who is just starting on this journey?
Abi (age 10 when her dad committed suicide/age 30 today): That it is not your fault, there is no way you could’ve prevented it, even if he could go back in time and do this or that differently there is no way you could’ve stopped it, nothing you could’ve said to change his mind, no behavior or you could’ve done differently to make the circumstances different. It will be OK, the Lord will use time to heal.
Kayla (age 9 when her dad committed suicide/28 today): I would encourage you to press into God the Father, through His Word. Open your eyes and heart to see His mercy, goodness, and love for you. Meditate on His lifegiving Word, and let it heal you. He will make everything beautiful in His time, as you trust Him, love Him, and walk in His purposes.
Brandon (age 8 when his dad committed suicide/age 27 today): I’m so sorry. You have been given a very heavy weight to carry. But don’t use it as an excuse or a weakness. Let it make you stronger, embrace your pain. The storms make us stronger. Don’t blame God, He has the best heart and loves you. There will come a day where you will be grateful that you went through this. Or, you can be a victim and end up a statistic, you make that choice.
Evan (age 4 when his daddy committed suicide/age 23 today): Don’t ever accept that your story is anything other than GOD’s story for YOU. We are intricately designed and given a story that we are responsible for using for the glory of God. Find mentors and Godly people to help mold and grow you. Dig into God’s word to find out how He (capital H) wants you to use your story for His glory and YOUR good!
Amy (age 2 when her daddy committed suicide/age 22 today): I would tell them I’m sorry and that no one should have to go through something like this for any reason. I would tell them that no matter what, the Lord is going to be by their side every step of the way and hold them when they can’t take steps for themselves. I would tell them that believe it or not, God is sovereign. That they are not in this alone. I would tell them to not get angry at God – getting angry will not bring your loved one back to life. Go through the motions, but don’t resent God. He is there FOR you, BY you, and WITH you at every single moment.
Micah (13 months old when his daddy died/age 20 today): Press into Jesus, it’s okay to have hard times – when you do, talk to your mentors and peers and don’t hold it in!
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