Advice for a Traumatic Death Such as Suicide or Overdose

A traumatic death is particularly hard to talk about, but children will be curious about how their loved one died and you should not avoid giving an explanation. Try to give children developmentally appropriate information without overwhelming them. For example, you might explain that the person had a disease that caused her brain to stop working the way it should, and that the doctors tried to solve the problem but they weren’t able to cure the disease.

As children get older you can begin to give more information. If the loved one died by overdose, you can explain that the disease was addiction, which made that person want more of a substance than was good for her. For teenagers, you can let them know what the specific substance was, and assure them that having this addiction didn’t make their loved one bad. As kids get older they may also hear that addiction runs in families. While this is important to keep in mind, you can explain that addiction is a complex disease that is caused by a combination of genes and environment. Having a relative who struggled with addiction does not necessarily mean that they will also struggle with it.

If the loved one died by suicide, you might explain that she had a psychiatric disorder, which is a disease in the brain, and it caused her to die. For older children, do share more information if they ask for it, but avoid sharing troubling details. Assure children that their remaining caregivers are healthy and will take care of them.

Expect children to be processing this death over the course of many years as their understanding of it changes with age. Dealing with such a difficult and traumatic loss may very well require the help of a professional.