Deciding whether or not to bring your child to a funeral really depends on their age, personality, tolerance level and relationship to the person who has passed. Whatever you decide, a loved one’s passing is an important opportunity for you to teach your child that funerals (or “farewellings”) are meant to celebrate life and bring closure to those who are grieving and beginning the healing process after their loss.
Give Your Child a Voice in the Process
If the question is whether or not to give children a say in the matter, then it makes sense that they need to be old enough to express what they’re thinking. Kids as young as three or four will be able to engage in the conversation. Younger children may not always appreciate death as permanent (see: Talking to Kids About Death), but they may still be interested in saying goodbye.
For older children, simply ask them if they’d like to go to the funeral. Seriously. Offer them information on why we have funerals and what to expect. They’ll likely have an opinion, and that opinion really matters. The goal of any conversation around this topic with your child is to give them enough understanding and space to decide for themselves how (and if) they want to say goodbye.
Attending the Funeral
If your child decides to go to the funeral, continue to make room for choice. Explaining a casket is very different from seeing one, and if your child changes their mind or would prefer to leave, then be prepared to support them. If they decide to stay, ask them if they’d like to get closer, touch the body, say something, leave something behind, sing a song, say a prayer. It’s best to keep things flexible by identifying a friend or relative who’s willing to take your child for a walk at any point. Reassure their choices: there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.
Why Do We Tiptoe Around Death With Children?
We spend so much time protecting our children from unnecessary harm, and we definitely don’t want to expose them to something that might scar them for life.
But the fact is, giving them no choice will do a lot more damage. In general, children are often kept away from funerals for reasons such as:
- Looking at a dead body will be too disturbing.
- They won’t understand, so why bring them?
- It’s too sad.
We make A LOT of decisions on behalf of our children, and we’re constantly looking to set healthy limits. But when it comes to their experience with the death of a loved one, we often get it wrong. In an effort to “protect” them from too much sadness, we might hide our tears. In assuming that seeing a dead body is “traumatic,” we might take away their ability to have closure. In doing so, we’re teaching them that death is something to be feared and avoided.
If you really want to help your child grieve and develop a healthy relationship with loss, then take their hand and experience it together.
Honoring a Loved One Within Your Child’s Comfort Zone
Help your child understand all the different ways they can say goodbye, from releasing balloons to writing letters, visiting the cemetery or attending the funeral service. If the decision is to attend the funeral, describe the setting and answer their questions with as much honesty as possible.
Saying goodbye in a way that feels right to your child teaches them that grief is something to be talked about and shared. Validating their sadness and respecting their needs will empower them to respect their own feelings going forward as well.
Will My Child Be Welcome at the Funeral Service?
As a general rule, kids are always welcome to pay their respects, and a young presence can be uplifting and positive. Just do keep in mind that friends and family may be distracted by their own grief, so they may not be as attentive or effusive as they normally would.
If you’d like to read more Farewelling articles that deal with grief, click here.
Grace Y. Lin is a mom, wife and Licensed Behavioral Therapist living and practicing in New York. Visit her website here.