A question we often get asked is “should I take my young child to a funeral?” At Grief Recovery, we believe that all feelings are normal and natural including sad or painful ones so it would be easy to say “yes of course”. The real question is whether your child is old enough to hang around relatively quietly while the adults do what they must do. If they can do that then yes, they should go.
Crucially before that happens the child needs to know what to expect and what your expectations are of them so you’ll need to do some explaining before the event:
First explain to your child that a funeral is something that happens after somebody has died. It is a ceremony where we go to remember someone the way we knew them in life and so we can say goodbye.
Then, this might be the point at which you explain any religious or spiritual beliefs your family has about the soul or spirit and what happens to it after death. You might also explain how this is different to what the family of the person who died believes. Notice how I emphasised the “might” please make your own decision on this, potentially guided by the questions your child has.
Next talk about where the funeral will take place – and the need to sit quietly & respectfully during the ceremony. If the funeral includes a burial you will also need to explain what happens at the cemetery, or for a cremation that the coffin may be moved by a conveyor belt and go behind some curtains. If children are prepared for what will happen they are far less likely to have a strong reaction.
Mention that it is OK to cry if they want to but it is ok too if they don’t want to. Also, explain that many of the grown ups may be crying as they are sad because someone they love has died.
This gives you another chance to explain that “sad” is one of the normal feelings to have when someone dies.
In British culture, it is common for the coffin to be sealed, if the funeral is for someone of a different culture or belief system then the body may be in a shroud rather than a coffin, or there may be an open casket. It is worth checking both so that you know what to expect and so that you can explain these differences to your child.
Also, explain that after the ceremony you may go to a home or another place, where there might be food and it might look like a party. Explain that we do this so everyone can get together and talk about and remember the person who died.
If your child is just beginning to understand the concept of death the process will be helpful for them as you reduce their fears about death by telling them the truth. The time you invest in giving them detailed explanations will be invaluable.
This article was written by Carole Henderson, Managing Director of Grief Recovery (UK) and was inspired by a chapter in the book “When Children Grieve” by John James, Russell Friedman and Leslie Landon-Matthews available online here.