Should I bring my child to a funeral?

Posted on June 10, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under children and death, Funeral Etiquette, funerals
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During a casual conversation recently, a neighbor told me her father died when she was ten years old.  I offered my sympathy, remarking how hard that must have been for her. She said, “It was a blessing.” “He was very sick and what I remember most was being at the funeral home for the wake and viewing.”  She went on to describe a ten-year-old’s memory of dancing in the funeral home, blowing him kisses and seeing the adults around her smiling, laughing and telling great stories. She remembers brightly colored posters and pictures. Then she said, “It was such a good first experience in a funeral home that nothing has ever matched it and every time I go to a wake, I feel sad for the family, because theirs is not the celebration mine was.  “It was only recently”, she said, “that I went to a wake for a town official and had a similar experience with pictures, stories, and a line full of people making the family feel better.”

It is challenging to help children through loss. Whether to include a child in attendance at public funeral events is a decision best made considering the child’s maturity, worldview, and relationship to the deceased.  My neighbor’s anecdote validates that there is a right way to approach death care with children.

Children grieve when they lose a friend, a pet, when they move to a new school or when a person they know dies. Their need to process the emotions is no less than it is for adults. Public rituals such as a family visitation, church service, burial or celebration of life, help children acknowledge the loss, feel the emotional pain, and take the next step to healing. Excluding them on the basis that it is a sad time, or difficult task, shortchanges them.  Leaving them at home as you face the loss, can make them feel isolated, sad and angry. When it is a close death, such as a parent or sibling, keep in mind you only have once chance to get it right. Some children have spent years resenting the fact that they never got a chance to say good-bye or were left out of a significant family moment.  Funeral Directors are experts on death care and drawing on their rich experience is a good idea when grappling with the best way to help your child. The answer to questions such as: should I bring my child to a viewing, should my child go to the public service or the cemetery depends on the child and the circumstance. The expertise of a funeral director and your parental wisdom  can guide you. Some funeral homes also  have grief experts or community educators who can help.

Death education is easier when a child attends the wake or funeral of someone they knew casually.  This gives them a chance to get “the lay of a land” particularly if in a funeral home or cemetery. However, if the death is someone with whom they were close, work with the funeral director to create the best possible situation. Bringing children in for private time with a deceased loved one is done regularly, then leave it up to the child if they want to remain for public events.  Some families have chosen to bring their children to the cemetery a week or so later, giving parents the time they need to recover from the initial shock and exhaustion. The death of a peer is another matter, it can be a good strategy to bring small groups of children together, so they have support and a ready-made network to process the experience afterwards. Another solution is to bring a group of peers together in an alternate setting at a later time to discuss the nature of death and share their memories of their friend. A school-aged child should always be asked what they want to do.

Children are too young to attend a public ceremony when they cannot identify, therefore process, what is happening, even if age-appropriate language and explanations are used. If a child cannot conform to the required conduct, it’s an indication they are too young. Children follow their parents lead and often lurk around listening to adults processing grief or talking “funeral”.  If you are confident, compassionate and caring, they will be. If you are unsure and reticent, it is a flashing alert for them to enter  “fear” mode. Whatever your decision, you communicate your attitude and fears, and they act accordingly. Check yourself  to ensure your decision is in their best interest, not yours. Many parents have said they do not want to bring their child to a viewing or funeral, “Because my child has not seen or experienced death yet.”  With the amount of death and violence depicted both on the news and action adventure shows, you can be sure your child has heard and witnessed death.

There is no “one size fits all” approach for determining the best strategy with a child. It is instinctive to want to “protect” your child from anything sad or difficult, and certainly death falls into this category, but do not let your distress drive your decision. Balancing parental wisdom with the sound advice of death care professionals will help you determine, like my neighbor’s family did, the best way to help a child through the loss.




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