My five-year-old asked me the one question I've always dreaded - I didn't know what to say

Photo: Istock
Photo: Istock 

My five-year-old asks hundreds of questions a day and I can answer most of them with ease.

Yep, caterpillars turn into butterflies. No, there aren't any mermaids living under the bed.

"Why are leaves green?" A quick Google later and I check that one off the list too. 

But there's one question I've always dreaded, and she finally asked it one night in bed: "How did Uncle Daniel die, mum?" 

It's not easy explaining the concept of suicide to a child, let alone the accompanying themes of mental illness, grief and impermanence. As grown-ups, we barely understand it all ourselves. 

Predictably, the ensuing conversation was difficult with many instances of "But why, mum?" that left my brain and heart hurting. 

Lying awake in bed later that night, I wondered if I'd made some huge parenting mistake.

Was she too young? Had I just damaged her psyche? Did I hold back too much or not enough? 

But according to Beyond Blue, having these hard conversations with our children is healthier than shutting down and forcing them to fill in the gaps themselves. The latter could lead to their imaginations running wild with anxious thoughts or getting the wrong information from an unreliable source. 

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So, how do you answer these questions from a child?

Dr Kimberley O'Brien, Principal Child Psychologist from The Quirky Kid Clinic, admits that it's a tricky situation, but agrees open communication is a good approach. 

"It does depend on how your family is processing the grief. But I do like the idea of being that family that's not afraid to talk about it and is just as open as possible," she says. 

Dr O'Brien mentions an instance where a family lost a loved one to suicide, but tried to cushion the pain by hiding the truth. "They told the kids that he had a heart attack. And I felt like that just wasn't real and you know it's a bit like not being told that you're adopted, but you're going to find out later."

How should you talk about it?

"I think it's better to be honest and maybe just use friendly terms, like 'He was finding life really hard, and he needed to have a rest' or something like that. So, it's not saying anything false, but not going into too much detail."

If your child is pushing to know more, Dr O'Brien suggests that focusing on the science behind it might be easier for you to talk about, rather than the emotion of it. 

"When it comes down to 'How did he actually die?' I think it would be interesting to take the scientific approach. Saying things like 'He didn't have enough oxygen' or 'His heart stopped beating and so his body couldn't live'. Things like that."

What if you just can't find the words or don't think they're ready?

As for those questions you just don't feel comfortable answering or aren't sure how to respond to, she suggests writing them down.

"I think it's always good to say something like 'That's such a good question, I'm going to write it down and I'm going to come back to you on that'. Recording the question is good because it makes the child feel heard."

She says this might be useful if you feel your child is too young to hear or process certain things. "You could have a whole bunch of questions in there that you'll come back to and go through together when you feel they're the right age."

Are there any other ways to help a child understand better?

"I don't know if there are many children's books on how to discuss suicide, but that's something I'd probably look into," suggests Dr O'Brien.

For example, she mentions one book she knows that is useful for helping children understand grief and loss in general. She explains that it's about the lifespan of animals, which can help young children better understand death in a safe and non-scary way.

If you, your child, or someone you know requires the help of mental health services, please contact: 

Lifeline 13 11 14

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

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