Talking to your child about the death of a loved one is never easy, especially when you are feeling devastated yourself. But it's really important because these conversations can become the solid ground for your child to stand on as she comes to terms with this loss. Either you or someone who knows the child well and whom the child can trust needs to sit down with her in a quiet spot where she has your full attention. You don't want her trying to piece things together from overheard remarks. She needs to get a usable story of what happened to her dad that can make some sense to her; otherwise, she's at the mercy of her misconceptions, her fears, and her imagination.
You and your child can understand this tragic death from suicide as the result of a sometimes fatal illness, similarly to the way the child whose father died from cancer can understand her father's death.
Your basic message to your child is that her father's brain got sick and his sick brain made him feel so terrible and hopeless that he made his body stop working and he died. Focus on the illness, not the event.
Then you follow her lead, answering her questions truthfully but with no more detail than she needs. You want to keep out the drama and stay away from any kind of blaming. Always use words and concepts that your child can understand at her age and level of development. Very young children will need help in understanding what death means, and you'll need to spend time telling them that when a person's body stops working, we say he is dead. Dead means he can't breathe, move, eat, sleep, think, talk, or feel pain anymore. (If it fits with your family's belief system, you can say that his body is dead but his spirit or soul is still alive.)
If and only if the child asks for more specifics, you can say, "When a rope is too tight around someone's neck for too long, he can't breathe anymore. When his body can't breathe, it stops working and then he dies," or "The bullet made his heart stop beating. When a person's heart stops beating, that person's body stops working, and then he dies."
When your child is ready to know more about why the brain sickness led to her father's death--and this may be right away or days or weeks later--you can tell her these ideas: When someone's brain is sick in this way, the brain sends confused thoughts that make the person feel so sad, scared, and angry that those feelings seem like the only feelings he'll ever have. The unhealthy brain makes the person believe that those feelings can never change and that what's wrong now will always be wrong. That is a mistake--feelings can change, problems can be managed, and things can get better, But sometimes when people are in the middle of thinking in this confused way, they do things to make their body stop working. When somebody makes their body stop working, we say they have completed suicide.
This is what happened to Daddy: He completed suicide. It's helpful if you say those words in a matter-of-fact way so that your child hears them from you first rather than hearing "suicide" whispered by someone else and not having a usable understanding of what it means. (Children who are shielded from the knowledge that their loved ones' illness led them to make their bodies stop working--to complete suicide--often feel betrayed when they find out at some later time. Their renewed grief is then colored by anger towards the ones who they thought were protecting them.)
If your child gives any indication that she feels she is at fault--"If only I hadn't argued with him, he wouldn't have been so upset and he'd still be alive," for example--be clear that she did not cause this death. All children argue with their parents sometimes, or have mean thoughts sometimes, or [put in what your child is worried about here]. It was the illness that made Daddy feel so desperate and have such distorted thoughts, not the child.
As you can see, talking to your child about the death of a loved one to suicide isn't a one-time conversation. Most of the time, children need to take in a little bit at a time, chew on it, then come back for more at a later point. They may show a whole range of emotions, often in short bursts. By realizing that both the need for multiple conversations and the variety of grief reactions your child may have are perfectly normal, and by letting your child see you as a caring, trustworthy source of information, you are helping her on the road to healing.
Anne Hatcher Berenberg, PhD and Vicki Scalzitti co-authored the book 10 Steps for Parenting Your Grieving Children. Anne is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and their parents in Northfield, IL. Vicki is Manager of Children's Bereavement Services at Rainbow Hospice in Mt. Prospect, IL. Please stop by and visit their website.