I was talking some friends a while back about when they went to their first funeral (that’s what you get when you hang out with a gal who writes a grief blog). It was prompted by a conversation in which a friend mentioned that he was not “invited” to attend his grandmother’s funeral when he was a teenager. It was shocking for me to find out that many friends didn’t attend a funeral until high school, college and even into adulthood. Many who had not attended funerals in childhood had strong memories of the losses they experienced, and some carried resentments that their families had restricted them from attending the service. Others were in or approaching their thirties and felt extremely uncomfortable (bordering on terrified) to attend a funeral. Yet still many felt apprehensions about their own children attending funerals and had questions about whether this is appropriate.
Their memories stand in stark contrast to my own memory of funerals. The first funeral I remember attending was when I was seven years old. My mom had a close friend who died of breast cancer. Her son, Tom, was one of my best friends. They lived on our street and felt more like family than friends. All these years later I remember her death and the funeral so well. I remember feeling like I needed to be there, that I wanted to be a part of what everyone else was doing to say goodbye. I remember feeling like I had to be there because Tom would be sad. Who knew that even my six-year-old self was inclined to help and support people who are grieving?! I still remember the funeral home, seeing her in the casket, and being at the church. I remember my dad helping me understand what I was seeing, talking about death and why she didn’t look like herself. It was a feeling of comfort being there with so many people who loved her. After that I remember many funerals that followed. My family is half Greek and if you meet someone once, you are welcome at their funeral! Attending funerals at a younger age was simply more culturally accepted, I suppose, and funerals were something I became comfortable with (as comfortable as one can be with a funeral!).
All this got me thinking a lot about how we are raised around funerals, and the impact it has on us in the long term. Working with families at the hospital at the time of their loved ones death, one of the most common questions I am asked, "should children attend funerals?". Parents and family members are often full of hesitations. What if the child is too young to understand? What if the funeral is traumatic or distressing for the child? What if it is upsetting for the child to see adults cry? What if other people at the service will think it is inappropriate that a child is there?
When it comes to funerals and children, the first question always seems to be if a child "old enough" to attend. How young is too young to go to a funeral? I can't answer this question for you, because in reality it is the wrong question to ask. Age has nothing to do with her a child should attend a funeral. Really, it doesn't. There is no such thing as “too young” as long as the appropriate steps are taken and you are thoughtful about your child is and what will work for them. Attending funerals, even for children of a young age, can be helpful and positive as long as handled appropriately. I have no doubt the reason my early memories of funerals are positive is because my parents followed so many of the recommended guidance for preparing kids for funerals (whether they knew it or not). So the better question is, what are the steps you should go through when considering your child attending a funeral?
- Leave it up to the child. It is important children are given the option to attend or not, and it is important their decision is respected. If told they cannot attend without giving them a choice, children may feel abandoned or resentful. If a child doesn’t want to go and is forced this can be distressing and traumatic. Encourage your child to attend, let them know they are welcome and will be supported, but don’t push them.
- Tell your child exactly what to expect. Now, obviously this will need to start with a conversation about death. If you are looking for tips on talking to kids about death you can see Eleanor’s post on the influence of age on understanding, as well as tips on language to use and not to use in talking to kids about death (aka stay away from euphemisms!). Once you have had this conversation, it is important you explain to them what a funeral is all about. Why do we have a funeral? Who will be there? How long will it last? What will they do? What will other people do? Be specific - what is a casket or an urn, what is a burial, why will there be flowers, etc etc.
- Help them prepare for what they will see. Describe what the funeral home will look like, the casket, and the person who died (if it will be an open casket). Many funeral homes now have photos online of their building and facilities, which you may be able to show a child in advance to help them know where they are going. Also, some funeral homes offer family time before 'the public' is allowed to arrive, which can be a good time to bring the child without the chaos of other guests.
- Assign a buddy. Pick a family member or family friend who will take responsibility for being with buddied-up with the child. They can be there to answer questions, provide support, and take the child out for a break or home if they decide they are ready to leave. If you are going to be busy talking to people or busy it is important to be realistic that you may not be the best buddy for your child at the visitation or service.
- Involve the child in the service. Ask if they may want to write or draw something to place in the casket or display at the service, help choose flowers, an urn, or casket for the service, help pick photos for a slideshow or to display at the funeral home. Depending on the age of the child, they may even wish to share some words at the service.
- Let them know about emotions they may see or feel. Kids will see adults being emotional and crying. AND THAT’S OKAY. Though adults are often fearful of this, thinking they need to be strong in front of their children, the reality is that kids seeing these emotions can be a good thing. It lets kids know that it is okay to feel and express difficult emotions. If they know you are sad, it may make it easier for them to talk about their sadness. Just make sure they know this is something they will see and understand why people will be sad.
- Warn them they may get mixed messages. Adults say all sorts of things to kids about death and at a funeral they may hear many messages from many different people. From using all those euphemisms (grandma is sleeping or grandma is in a 'better place') to hearing messages to 'be brave' mixed with other messages that it is 'okay to cry', kids may feel confused. Explain why different adults may tell them different things, and reinforce what you want them to remember (what death is, that it is ok to cry, that nothing is their fault, they will be safe and protected, etc)
- Respect their decision if they don't attend. Some children may feel strongly that they don't wish to attend. If that is the case, don't force them. Ask them if there is anything they would like to do on their own to say goodbye. If it is a close family member, consider creating an audio or video recording of the service so the child can watch it later if they regret not attending. You may also consider journaling about the funeral afterwards, while it is still fresh in your mind, so you can read it or talk about it with your child later.
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