South Africa has the 8th highest suicide rate in the world. I was recently asked how to explain suicide to an 8 year old after a grandfather committed suicide and his school friend who’s father had hit financial crisis had killed himself leaving his two young children and wife to cope with the turmoil.

What a hard topic to have to discuss with a child. Probably so hard because we ourselves battle to understand it and how can we help someone else understand, if we don’t? Even more so if that person’s developmental level allows for concrete thinking and has difficulty with the abstract idea that is suicide.

You may find you want to deal with the levels of the topic over days… months or years and give clarity as the child matures or asks specific questions.  Starting off with tell them the person has passed away and allowing them to deal with that alone first.  When ready or when they ask questions you can start offering more and more details as you feel they are ready to process it.


Here are 3 important rules when talking to children about serious topics:

  1. If a child asks, s/he deserves and needs an answer.
  2. Answer the question without overcomplicating. Keep the answers in direct response to the question asked and don’t expand on it too much.  We often lose the childs attention with our detailed answers and they feel they didn’t actually get an answer.
  3. A child will only ask a question if s/he has thought about the answer and is curious as to your opinion on it. If you do not have the answer, you have the fullest right to say, “I don’t know”, “let me think about it”, “I can’t answer that”.. The child will respect you for it, although they may not be satisfied. A good idea is to go and find the answers together, like asking a aunt, a teacher etc. or giving them a time when you will come back with an answer. Sometimes allowing them to search by themselves is a good idea, but wholely dependent on their age and circumstances.
  4. The answer must always be delivered with openness and honesty
  5. If you can’t, then rather postpone. You will not be the only person offering an opinion and therefore if you give an untruthfull answer, it will only lead to confusion and mistrust. A child needing an answer on suicide – that of a loved one or even in their community – is experiencing a level of turmoil and it should not be exacerbated.
  6. The answer must always be delivered on the level that the child can fully comprehend.
  7. This is the most difficult to determine, but I have found that analogies and metaphors work really well. It can illicit more questions and clarity  can be requested as needed.


The same symbol can be used and developed as the child grows older and abstract thinking becomes more natural. In the case of suicide, I suggest the following:

“You know that all the trees in the forrest had to find a place where they could grow? They needed to have enough sunlight and shade, water and air, everything that they needed to grow into big trees. People are just the same. They need many things to be able to grow. Sometimes trees and people don’t get what they need to grow.

Maybe because of the place they are in, the time they are in or their surroundings. Maybe sometimes no-one knows what they need, not even they themselves. When that happens the tree starts dying slowly untill it falls over and becomes part of the earth again. People in that same situation sometimes feel like they are dying from the inside too- its called depression. And although things sometimes change for people with depression and they begin to feel better, sometimes they don’t ever feel better and they decide to fall over and die. Its not like choosing to die, its more like not being able to live any longer.

Depression caused a lot of sadness for ….. and s/he was just not able to live any longer. I want you to know that trees never push one another down, just like no one caused … to stop living. S/he simply could’t any more. The trees in the forrest carry on growing after one falls over, because they know that every tree is prescious and they know what the fallen tree means to them. Just like us.

We know what … means to us and how s/he taught us about … You and I feel sad, but its a different kind of sadness to what … felt. We have a sadness that can change and we might feel angry sometimes or worried or confused. It might feel a bit less one day and a lot more the next. But you know what is a good thing? Its the kind of sadness that feels better when we talk about it or when we cry or when we hug one another. So lets do that whenever we need to feel better, okay?”

Suzette Weideman

Suzette is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice at the InPsyght Therapy Centre in Monument, Krugersdorp.