A Child’s First Funeral
The last thing a parent wants to do is take their child to a funeral or viewing. We instinctively want to protect our children from the reality of death, yet this understandable avoidance has a cost. Resilience is developed when children receive the support they need to get through the difficult things in life. Helping children face the reality of death and providing support for the child to mourn gives them the skills and the confidence they will need as they face future losses and challenges. It seems strange to say, but allowing your child to attend a funeral is a gift. Psychologist Henry Cloud has said, “The most important thing to teach a child is how to lose.” A funeral does just that, teach children how to lose and begin to grieve the death of someone they loved.
So how can parents prepare their child to attend a funeral?
The most important thing to do is to talk openly and honestly about the death. You don’t have to give a lot of details about the death itself, especially to younger children. If children want or need to know more, they will ask. Follow their lead and give opportunities for them to ask questions. It is important as you talk to use the word died or dead. It confuses children when we use phrases like: passed on, asleep, gone or lost. I know a five year old child who was looking everywhere for the person who died because people had told him that she was “lost”. Younger children will need to know what dead means.
Tell them what the funeral will be like. Let them ask questions. Alan Wolfelt, a grief expert, says that, “Children need to know that the funeral is a time of sadness because someone has died, a time to honor the person who died, a time to help comfort and support each other and a time to affirm that life goes on.” It is also important to share your religious beliefs about death with your child.
Let them know what behavior is appropriate at the funeral. It is always a good idea to bring some “fiddle toys” with you to the funeral. It is often a long time for a child to have to sit still. Some funeral homes have a room for kids where they can watch movies or play games.
Let your children know that when someone dies people have many different feelings. Explain that they may see you or others cry. Let them know how you are feeling about the death, but remind them that it is your job to help them. The message is that this mixture of sad, angry, scared feelings don’t have to be fixed or changed, because people are supposed to be upset when someone dies. It is important to let them know that they may see people laughing and telling stories and it is okay for them to do that too.
No child is too young to go to a funeral. If a child is old enough to love they are old enough to grieve. Children should be encouraged to attend a funeral, but never forced. Give them options in order to increase their comfort: sitting in a different room, being with a friend or family member, bringing their favorite stuffed animal with them etc.
How does your child want to participate in the funeral? Do they want to bring in special pictures of the person who died? Do they want to be a part of the service itself by lighting candles, sharing memories, or doing a reading? If the child is particularly close to the person who died, let them have creative input into the service in terms of music, readings, etc.
In the days following the funeral, create opportunities to talk about their experience. What did they observe? What was strange or weird for them? Let them know that the funeral is just the beginning of saying goodbye to the person who died. Let them know that feelings of grief are like the weather, something they can’t control. Let them know that these feelings can’t be rushed, but that getting them out through talking, writing, artwork can help. If you or your child was very close to the person who died, discuss ways to remember and honor them by: making the person’s favorite meal or telling stories about them, putting pictures of the person around the house etc.
Remember you are a role model for your children. Openly grieving gives your children permission to deal with their grief in their own way and in their own timing. Let them know that it is okay to ask for help if they are having a rough day. Each person grieves differently so it’s okay if their grief looks different than yours.
Lastly, be gentle with yourself. Get support for yourself from caring friends and family, support groups, or a counselor.