Funerals serve a specific purpose for adults; they are a helpful part of the grieving process. The ritual allows time for mourning, processing the departure of the loved one, and an opportunity to be comforted by family and friends. Children need this, too.
Some families avoid discussing death with young children to shield them from grief. When children are brought into the realities of the cycle of life—which includes death—and allowed to ask questions, the process seems less mysterious and frightening. Children left out of simple information will make things up that are scarier than reality. An adult’s vague explanation of death, such as, “God takes the good ones early,” or “Grandma just fell asleep and did not wake up” will have children imagining things: “If I’m good, will I die too?” They may develop anxieties that were not there before: “I think I’ll avoid sleep for a while…”
letting kids participate in funerals
All children deserve to be informed about the death of someone or something that they cared for. How this is presented depends on the age and maturity of the child. Young children do not need many details; however, if someone had been ill, you can discuss that. Talk of the afterlife will be shaped by religious beliefs, but parents should be careful about saying things that may be frightening. “I believe Grandfather is with God” is fine; “Grandfather is still with us in spirit” is not. (“What, like a ghost? I think I’ll avoid the dark for a while…”). Instead, talk about how the good memories of Grandfather will be “with us always.”
While funerals can be comforting to children (and there is research that supports this), this is not always the case. When a death was abrupt or particularly tragic (murder, suicide), the grief reactions of mourners may be too intense for a child. Instead of attending the funeral, a young child can light a candle at church (or temple) to mourn the passing with a nurturing adult.
If you do involve the child in the funeral, help him understand what to expect: where it will be, what the coffin is like, and if it’s open, how the deceased will look different. Let him know that adults often cry at funerals, and that is alright. The burial may or may not be something the child attends. Parents can expect that young children will ask odd questions, such as “Is Grandma wearing shoes? Can she see me?” Answer these questions truthfully.
Children process death differently and may still lack awareness of its permanence. This should be explained clearly. Questions will be repeated over in the months following a death and attendance at a funeral; patience is necessary. The most important message is that death is part of the cycle of life. All living things are born, live for a while, and then die—including plants, bugs, animals and people. When something or someone dies, the memories live on.
Funerals as well as discussion about death in multiple contexts (seeing a dead bird, watching a movie about dying) provide a healthy orientation to the cycle of life. While discussing Grandmother’s death may be sad, it does not have to be emotionally scaring. On the contrary, a trip to the cemetery in our city that celebrates past spirits or an explanation of the significance of a second line may be an uplifting way to help a child understand life a little better.
by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.