My daughter attended her first memorial service — her grandmother’s — when she was just four months old. My mom had passed away after a devastating two-year battle with cancer, and while it would've never occurred to me to not take my baby to the service, I sometimes wonder what I would have done if she'd been older. Would I have made the same choice?
To help parse it out, I turned to experts, including Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor, death educator and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, who tells Yahoo Life that "Should children attend funerals?" is one of his most frequently heard questions.
And it's a modern one, says Wolfelt, who believes it has arisen as part of what he calls our “mourning-avoidant” culture, despite how, historically, kids were surrounded by death and funeral ceremonies.
In 1900, he notes, half of all deaths were of people under 15, so on average, children attended 20 to 30 funerals by the time they were 10. Without hospitals or hospices, people died at home and bodies were laid in parlors, and children weren’t shielded from those deaths. But, as life expectancies grew longer and medical complexes grew bigger, the naturalness of death as a part of life faded.
Now the decision is more pointed — and personal. But “any child old enough to love is old enough to mourn,” says Wolfelt. And while there’s no “right way” to help them do this, the process usually begins the moment an adult tells a child that a person has died, and continues with a funeral or memorial service.
Such ceremonies, he says, play an important part in the grief process, not only because by helping people acknowledge the reality that someone has died, but letting them recall the loved one's life, activate support and reenter their community and by transitioning from grief — one's internal response to loss — to mourning, which Wolfelt explains as the public, shared response to loss.
These ceremonies aren’t about closure, he stresses, but providing a critical experience that allows mourning to begin.
Vicki Jay, CEO of the nonprofit National Alliance for Children’s Grief (NACG), agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “[Kids] should be involved in the funeral and funeral process as much as possible."
However, Jay cautions parents that the decision to attend should be mutual — and that children shouldn't be forced to go, nor should they be unequivocally denied the opportunity. To involve them in the decision, she recommends parents prepare them for what they will see and help them understand the overall purpose of the service. Tailor your discussion based on the child's age, she adds, and let them know that they can change their minds right before the ceremony — or even during — if it becomes too overwhelming.
How to lead the discussion
With young children, parents should have an open, honest conversation or series of conversations and use simple and clear explanations for common funeral terms such as burial and casket. Start by explaining that a funeral is a ritual that helps people remember and say goodbye to someone who has died — and know that it's normal for little ones to have lots of questions and to ask the same ones repeatedly. You can let their questions guide the conversation and, if helpful, provide them with crayons or a small toy to keep their hands busy while they listen.
When talking with older children, adults can acknowledge their feelings and let them know that there's no one “right way” to feel. Then prepare them for what they might witness.
“Older children may have only experienced funerals on TV, so it's important to explain to them what to expect,“ says psychologist Bianca Neumann, head of bereavement at Sue Ryder, a bereavement support nonprofit in the U.K. “You can then detail what readings there are likely to be, and if you know of any prayers and music planned, then you can talk to your child about this, too. It is important to explain to your child that some people will be very sad and may cry a lot and other people will be thinking about the good memories they have.”
With both younger and older kids, this conversation is also a good opportunity to acknowledge that these rituals differ for every family and by culture — and to share personal beliefs about death and why funeral services are important to help people find meaning in the experience.
Some kids may want to get involved, and that can look different for every child: Writing a letter (or drawing a picture) to put in the casket or share at the service, helping family select hymns or poetry, singing a song during the service, lighting a candle, helping to choose the flowers, doing something creative (like painting a rock to leave by the graveside), giving a eulogy or sharing a memory with attendees are just a few examples of what Jay calls “tangible actions” that connect both young children and teens to a service.
If a kid does not want to attend or is unable to, they can still feel connected to the ceremony, such as by writing or drawing something or helping to plan an aspect of the service.
How to support kids at the service
“It’s always helpful to have a neutral person there to support the child," Jay says. "As a parent who is experiencing grief, I may or may not be the most appropriate or helpful person for that child, so let them have somebody nearby that can sit with them and help them understand."
It’s also important for parents to pre-plan an escape route and to communicate to both the child and the trusted adult where they can go if the ceremony becomes too much — whether it’s a hallway, or an unused space in the building or even outside.
For younger children, adults can bring a “care bag” with a special stuffy, toy, snack and activity for support and distraction. “For children who are particularly young, ensuring that they are comfortable is key to making the funeral itself as good an experience as it can be for them,” Neumann says.
Also, adults should know it's okay for them to express their emotions in front of their kids, both during the ceremony and at any point in their own mourning process. It's healthy for kids to witness, Wolfelt says, because adults play a crucial role in modeling grief and mourning.
But the funeral is just the beginning of the mourning process, and kids will continue to need a lot of support in the days, months and years following the service, depending on their relationship with the person who died. It may prompt questions, especially for younger children. “Going over the same questions," says Neumann, "will actually help children to understand the situation around them."
She encourages parents to use every opening — a dead bird on the sidewalk, a funeral service for a neighbor or acquaintance, a visit to see someone in a nursing home or hospice facility, and even a visit to the cemetery to see the grave of someone who died years ago — to help normalize death for children. “Personally," she says, "I truly believe [that with] us trying to protect kids from death, we’re denying them a lot of opportunity to learn and grow in their … understanding of life and death."
Wolfelt agrees. “We have an obligation to create safe spaces to help kids mourn," he says, "and attending funerals is one way to help them get a great start.”
Looking back, I’m grateful that I gave my daughter — who will never remember meeting my mom, or saying goodbye, but will always carry her loss — that gift.
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