Should your child attend a funeral?

A friend of the family has just died and I am wondering if my five-year-old granddaughter should attend the funeral. She knew this person, although not very well. Under what circumstances should a child attend a funeral or wake?

Question:

Decisions like these have to do with both what is practiced in your family's culture and also your particular child's level of development and temperament. There is no "one right answer." It is important, in considering what to do, to take into account a five year old's capacity to understand death. Here are some things to consider:.

  • Think about your child's level of understanding. A five-year-old child can't fully comprehend death. She may be able to understand that the person isn't going to be here any more, but she will probably have a much harder time imaging why that might be the case. A common explanation young children come up with is that the dead person does exist somewhere else, like in heaven, in the cemetery, or somewhere far away you could reach by airplane. As one young child pleaded with his parents, "I know I can't see grandpa, but couldn't we put a phone at the cemetery so I could call him?"
  • Children learn important things from witnessing the death and grieving process. What impacts young children most pay when someone dies is the behavior and feelings of the people around them. It is from these responses that children come to understand that death is very important, sad and significantly different from most other events in life. Knowing that children are learning from us during this process can be a motivating force for us to get the support necessary to go through the grief process in healthy ways.

    It may be helpful for children to see adults cry. It can be overwhelming for children, however, if adults do all of their grieving in front of their children. It is useful for adults to regularly take private time, time to deal with their own grief. This will enable them to be supportive of their children's feelings during the process.

    Essentially, what children learn through the grieving period is that death is serious and may be more important for awhile than anything else that is happening. They learn that people have lots of feelings about dying, including sadness, fear and anger. Finally they can learn that even though it is hard, people find the optimism to go on with their lives and to develop a "new" relationship with the person who has died.

  • Children attempt to understand death and figure out how it relates to them. Typically, sometime during or after the dying/grieving process children begin to ask a lot of questions. Often, their questions are hard for us to answer. Our own grief can get in the way and we may not fully understand the concepts children are asking about. Children don't have the underlying knowledge or experience to comprehend the concepts and answers we may give them.

    A child who doesn't understand the concept of "forever," may repeatedly ask, "I know Uncle Louis is dead and won't come back, but when can I see him again? How about if I take a rocket to heaven?"

    Another thing that happens for children between the ages of four and six, is that they begin to extrapolate. If our friend Nigel can die, does that mean that other people could die also? Does it mean that my Dad, or Mom or Grandma could die?Could I die? In response to these questions, it is important to be honest, but reassuring. "Most people live a long, long time. I plan to live until you are all grown up and maybe have children of your own. People never know when they will die, so I can't tell you when I will die, but I do lots of things to help keep myself healthy because I want to live for a long time."

  • Think about which events might be useful for a child to participate in. In some cultures, everyone, without question, is included in the funeral or memorial ceremony. In others, children are not included. It can be very useful for a child to witness the process of people saying good-bye and at the same time, it can be overwhelming or scary for children to see lots of adults out of control with grief. If you want to include a young child in a funeral or wake, it is important that someone can be with the child who will be able to attend to the child's feelings and needs. Children as young as four or five will probably be able to choose whether they are interested in looking at the dead person (if there is an open casket.) If the adults around aren't hysterical, a child who chooses to look will probably be fine with the experience.
  • Think about the needs of the family of the deceased. The wake and the funeral are primarily for the family and friends of the deceased. It is important to support them in having the kind of service which will meet their needs. You could ask a family member whether they are expecting, or would be comfortable with children at the event.The length of the event and the expectations for behavior of the attending children should be considered.

    Young children have a hard time sitting still and being quiet for long periods of time. They may need to sit near the door and take a break during the service. They might not be absolutely quiet. If the event is not a "child-friendly" event, you may want to include your child in the process at another event. You and your child could bake muffins, make a card, or take flowers to the family. You could find a photograph of the friend and frame it for the family.

In the end, the appropriateness of a child's participation in a funeral or wake depends on the expectations of the family of the deceased, your own family's beliefs and your child's ability to participate appropriately and benefit from the event.

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