What’s Your Question: Should Children Attend Funerals?

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.

We would love for you to share your tips and feedback about children attending funerals!  Leave a comment, then subscribe to get our posts right to you email.

March 28, 2017

19 responses on "What's Your Question: Should Children Attend Funerals?"

  1. So important to listen to the childs wishes. If they want to go, let them and tell them what to expect. It’s normal for some people to cry and equally normal if they dont including children. Even if a child doesn’t want to go, just asking and feeling out what they need for grieving involves them and helps greatly. Crying inn front of a child over a death definitely shows a child you cared about their loved one, not crying by putting on a brave face only around children can show them you don’t really care one way or another about the deceased and may make them question your love toward the deceased and them. Involving a child gives a degree of control over an uncontrollable situation, something we all seek when death hits us.

  2. My grandchildren are 6 & 9. Their mother, divorced from my son, has cancer & just a few months to live. My son has taken custody as their mother is unable to care for them. I was concerned about taking them to get funeral, if we should or should not. They know she is very ill. After reading this, I’m sure taking them is the best path.

  3. My mother died when I was 11. Two days earlier visited the hospital and she appeared ok. When she passed my sister and I were not allowed to attend the funeral. We waited at my grandmothers house and when an Aunty returned she said the coffin was just like a child’s so small.
    My father was a mean nasty unfeeling man who never gave us love. World War 2 veteran .The next day sent home to live with this unfeeling man and got to age 29 ( stupidly ) believing my mother had run away and left us. Commonsense told me she would not do that as she was a sick lady. But everyone just assumed we would get over it. As my father was cruel other relatives and neighbours were not game to help us.
    I left home at 15 Left home got a job and didn’t get close to my father who died at 89. Went to the funeral to make sure he was dead.

    Never did shake the feeling of abandonment and to this day still feel rejected 60 years later.
    Children need closure love and suppor.

  4. I was 10 when my brother died from cancer. He was 23 and had been battling brain tumors since before I was born. He was raised by my grandparents so I never new him healthy or unaffected by the cancer or its treatments. My parents did not take me to see him in the hospital before he passed or to his funeral. Almost immediately they regretted their decision, and I will always remember my father reflecting on how handsome my brother looked, relaxed and peaceful, no longer swollen. That he could see a glimpse of the man he may have become had he not been ravaged by cancer for most of his short life. 30 years later I still wish I had gone, if only to see that glimpse for myself.
    When my own father passed away and then my grandfather my young children attended both funerals, and I think it helped them accept these deaths. When my (now adult) son was in a car accident out of state, I was able to get to the hospital before he passed away, however my husband and 15 year old daughter were not. It devastated me to think that she had been robbed of that goodbye, like I myself so many years ago, so I put the phone to my sons ear and let her tell him everything she needed to say. When we had his funeral she wanted to attend and so she did. This experience would be the opposite of mine had I attended my brothers – there was bruising and swelling that makeup did not hide, and there was a shock of him being so cold to the touch. What upset her greatly was the makeup, we had discussed it and gone with “light” at her request. But, in the end seeing her brother with makeup on made her upset and we all wished we had just gone with none despite his injuries. Even with all this she has expressed she is grateful to have attended, and says if she had not she doesn’t know if his death would be “real” for her. We had my son cremated, and she wears some of his cremains in a pendant, which she hasn’t removed since the day she put it on.
    A year later when a very good friend of hers died in an all-too-similar car accident there was no doubt that we would make the 9 hour drive for her to attend his funeral as well. We had just moved to a new state when it happened, and I think it was imperative to her coping to come back.
    I understand how some people may feel that funerals might be stressful or traumatic for a child. With my personal experiences however, missing one was actually more detrimental and they have been beneficial to the grieving process for my children.

  5. I’m glad you made this post. It still makes me very angry whenever I think about how I wasn’t allowed to go to my mother’s funeral when I was a young child.

  6. My cousins first funeral was when he was 4 and it was my dad’s funeral, his uncle that he was very close to. He thought my dad was just asleep in the casket and didn’t understand why he didn’t wake up to play with him. I had to explain about death to him, something I think his parents should have explained to him before coming to the funeral home. My kids were 6 and 8 at their dad’s funeral and they understood that he was no longer in the body and that his spirit was gone from it so the body died and would be buried in the ground. I let them ask me questions, no matter how trivial they sounded to me, they needed to know so I answered with the simplest answers I could think of to stay within the truth of what was going on. They did pretty well considering their ages and they remember today how patient I was with them through their questions. That was 38 years ago and they have never been afraid at any funeral because they understand what is going on and why everyone is crying. My oldest son is getting ready to explain it all to his children, ages 15 and 9 as I have 6 months left to live according to the doctors. The 15 year old understand what death is and why we have to deal with it, the 9 year old doesn’t realize it’s forever. He’s got a big job to do but I know he will handle it well because I did it right with him and he can use that example for his own children.

  7. I am so traumatized of going to funerals. My first funeral when I was 13 that my hand was shaking. I didn’t cry, but the thought of so many people crying and the sadness in the air made me so scared

  8. Growing up, I attended so many funerals, family friends, church friends, family. My parents took me from infant on. It was a part of life. I had been to so many that when my 93 year old Pappy died, even though he was the first closest loss, I only had to deal with grief, not the weirdness of funerals. I’ve followed thru with my own children… From tiny on. We just had a funeral yesterday and there were youngsters attending. It was a blessing to have them there. They were a reminder that life goes on, thru the sadness, they were the joy. My opinion… Take the kids to funerals… Especially while they are little, and especially to funerals that are not so close relationship wise. And, talk to them before, during and after… (Bring quiet toys, non messy snacks and be flexible)

    • Thanks Anne,

      I really like your advice. You raise an interesting point about how discomfort an awkwardness around funerals can be so preoccupying. If you’re comfortable and used to funerals that’s one less thing to cause you anxiety at the time of a loved one’s death.

      Eleanor

  9. Unfortunately, my children ages ten, nine, and 11 months had the unpleasant task of already attending two wakes and funerals. Six months back, my grandmother in law passed away after a brief illness. She was my husbands everything and the main caretaker of my children while we were at work. She was by far my most hurtful loss at the time. As we grieved our loss, my husband and I found it important to honor her in any way possible, including buying suits for the boys ( she was a total fashionista! ), ordering our own flowers for her services, helping decide on food for after, and so on. We made every decision with the boys and made sure they were prepared with what they can expect. Since they had such an ingrained love and respect for her, they knew what to expect, and they wanted to make her proud- they were amazing through the whole thing. Unexpectedly, almost three months ago, my husband died. It has been the hardest thing we have ever been through. My children already knew what to expect ( with the services at least ). Grams death, in some sick twist, had prepared them for their fathers death. Obviously, we are so fresh in this whole process, but if I can get any point across, it would be to be honest with your children. Be respectful of their feelings. Support them- give them a break. I truly feel that if an important decision ever needs to be made, as long as I think of their best interest, I won’t make a mistake. Thank you for your blog- it gives me insight in the most witty way and makes me remember that I am not the first person ever to grieve.

  10. This has been my yoke to bear for almost 12 years. When I was 9 years old, a dear friend of mine who, like me, had spent all too much time up to that point in and out of hospitals, got sick and died. One day he was fine, less than 48 hours later he was gone. My parents wouldn’t allow me to attend his funeral, hid photographs, some of which are still missing. They underestimate how close we were and my mom honestly believes, even now, that going to his funeral and being allowed to say goodbye to him along with everyone else would have done nothing for me because in her mind I was too young to grasp what death even was. For years I have written poems and songs, made musical slide shows with the few photos I have recovered, and occasionally, cried myself to sleep because it’s been made more than clear that I am not allowed to (at least with my parents around) even reminisce about the good old days when we were children. I didn’t just lose my friend that day, I lost the closest thing I have ever had to a brother, I lost my childhood, and my relationship with my mother which I am STILL trying to rebuild. She betrayed me when I needed her the most and it made everything worse because not only did I have to keep my memories and grief for my friend bottled up inside, but I felt as though I’d lost her too. Please, parents, NEVER, EVER, put your children in that situation, if they loose a friend or a family member, support them, don’t try to make them pretend it never happened.

    • Thank you SO much for taking the time to share your experience on this post. I think it will undoubtedly be helpful perspective to make people supporting children after a loss.

  11. It was great post as I am preparing my 6 years old daughter for her grandmother’s funeral this Saturday. My husband & I already talked our girl about funeral such as we will play music what nanny loved, making speech how much she meant to us, showing her pictures that she had great memories in her life, sending flowers, Her body will be in the special box made for her… people will talk each other about nanny’s love & how much we misses her, some may cry because it’s time to say good bye.
    We thought we did great job but she doesn’t want to attend..
    Her nanny was in hospital for 4 days and passed way. In hospital, she stayed next to her bedside, holding her hands and said she loves her so much. That time we already explained about death which she understood very well. She understood her body will stop working. Her heart stop & we won’t able to see or talk to her anymore but she will live in our heart as a memory that we still can remember her love. When she said good bye to her nanny, she even said “Nanny, God has a beautiful garden where you can sit & doing your crossword. I really wanted to go New York with you one day, mum said there is so big Christmas tress in New York. but it’s okay you can’t come. You can follow me from the sky when I go all round world.”
    After explaining about funeral, she asked us if it’s okay not to go. We said all family will be there to say good bye to nanny and have a special time to remember her beautiful life with others. We would like her to be there with all family. Then she said she already said good bye to nanny in the hospital & she started crying. She really doesn’t want to attend. She was too upset to sleep in her bedroom by herself. I asked her if she want to do other thing instead of funeral. She wants to go nanny’s grave and leave flowers and her drawing. At this point my husband and I respect her choice not to attend funeral. I wish she comes but I also not feel right to force her to go as she will be the one who will live with the funeral memory. She is too young to know everything but I believe she knows what she can take or not in this matter. We told her she can change her mind, so cross my fingers she says she will go to funeral… if not, guess it should be okay too.

  12. Boy, do I have a lot to say on this subject!! I was looking for archives of my old comments to update and landed here. Must be a reason.

    OK, when I was little (only child, female) we had the normal assortment of country pets: hamster, parakeet, cats, dog, snakes, birds, horses and ponies, cows, fish, and anything else that wandered around in the fields and woods. My neighborhood friends or cousins and I would often come upon deceased animals in various stages of decay. It was a normal thing for us.

    When most of my little pets died we would have a little ceremony, like putting it in a shoebox and burying it in a nice shady place under a tree or something. A good way to teach a child about transition into death.

    My father’s dog died and he cried a little, trying not to show it, and was very private when he dug a grave and buried him. We didn’t help. But I tried to understand.

    However, my grandmother (83 yrs old) lived upstairs in her own apartment and passed away. I was not allowed to attend the funeral because “I was too young and they wanted to PROTECT me.” Bah! What an insult.

    Sometime thereafter my precious kitty cat died. She slept with me and did little tricks. I did not find out about that until I insisted my parents tell me WHERE she was because we hadn’t seen her for a few days, and they acted funny every time I asked. My mother finally admitted that they found her on the back welcome mat where she would always bring her “prize” — dead mice as an offering to us (or to show off). And my father threw her in a drainage ditch down the road.

    That was the last straw. Things were never the same between us again. I eventually left home and have not spoken with them since 1981. My father passed in ’83. Oh, well, sht happens. My mother is supposedly in a condo or rest home or whatever in another state. Hope she enjoys the insurance money.

    So the answer is, NEVER EVER hold back the truth from a child. It’s not your job to do that when they ask YOU questions. If you don’t give them the answer they’ll go to someone else. Just think of what happens when you don’t tell them about human reproduction. You want them to learn it from somebody else? Who might SHOW them??

    I don’t want a reply. Don’t bother.

  13. I wish my father had given me the choice when my mother passed away ( I was 8 ). I don’t think I got proper closure. Thanks for the fantastic article. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks Leo. I guess parents usually make the decisions that they think will protect their kids the most, it’s so counterintuitive to expose a child to something that seems so sad. All we can do is keep talking about it and encouraging parents to make the choices that will benefit their kids the most in the long run. I’m sorry you didn’t feel like you got a sense of closure; this can create confusion for adults so I can only imagine what it must have been like as a kid.

  14. When I was 19 my father passed away suddenly. It was a very hard time for our family but we had experienced death earlier in our lives so we knew what to expect. My cousin was 4 at the time and was very close to my father, his uncle. At the viewing, he had a lot of questions and I was watching after him so his parents could be with my mom. He wanted to know why his uncle didn’t wake up and play with him. It was obvious that his parents had not prepared him for anything that was happening so I explained to him that my dad had died and that meant that his spirit was no longer in his body so his body died just like flowers die. And that his spirit would go to where it was intended to go, back to God. He knew about God and heaven and hell so it was easy to explain all this to him. He ask if he would die. I told him that we all would die one day but that we didn’t know when that would be and that he would probably grow up and have his own family first and that we shouldn’t worry about it but live our lives doing the things we plan to do. He ask about his parents and grandparents and I told him that everyone dies at some time in their lives because our body is only meant to last a certain amount of time. He ask if he would ever see his uncle again and I told him not here on earth. That when we die they bury our body in the ground in a grave or they burn it to ashes and but it in a can of sorts called an urn and either keep it where they can be reminded of the person or bury it. Then some people take flowers to put on the grave to remember the person and sometimes they visit the grave and they feel like they are visiting that person that died. He ask if I would take him to visit his uncle at his grave and I said I would any time he wanted to go. It turned our to be a good thing for my little cousin and when he was older he lost his grandparents and did very well with it. I think I did a pretty good job of explaining things to him so he understood it all. I’m glad I had the experience doing that because when my own children were 6 & 8 they lost their dad and I had to go through it all again. They did attend his viewing and funeral. They had many of the same questions about death and I was able to answer them in much the same ways as I did my cousin. It’s very hard for kids to understand that we will all die one day but that they don’t have to dwell on it wondering if their day is tomorrow or not.

    • Carolyn,

      Wow, I’m sure the last thing you thought you’d have to do at your father’s funeral is explain death to a 4 year old. It sounds like you explained this to him beautifully though; in a way that is true to your beliefs, honest, and comforting. I’m so sorry you had to go through this again with the death of your children’s father (your partner?), but they are lucky to have had you to guide them. I think your outlook is perfect, thank you for sharing this and hopefully it will help other readers who find themselves here looking for guidance.

      Eleanor

  15. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)July 10, 2014 at 9:37 amReply

    Well done, Litsa! I’ve added a link to your piece at the base of my own, which is on a similar topic: When Children Attend a Funeral: Some Preparation Tips, http://j.mp/1cqUAG3

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