Children and Funerals
At Duksa Family Funeral Homes, we spend a great deal of time listening to what families and experts have to say regarding a healthy grieving process for children. We'd like to share some thoughts for your consideration.
Today, child development experts agree that the healthiest approach is to include children in funeral rituals. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a noted psychiatrist, says "if they are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve." While some want to protect children from the harsh reality of death, denying children an opportunity to be part of remembering and saying goodbye shuts them out of an event that can help them grow. A child's fantasies about death and burial can also be dispelled by the reality of the funeral service which will help him or her develop a healthy and realistic attitude about death. How children grieve and participate in the rituals of your family will help determine how they will face future sorrows.
What to Expect
It will be important to explain your family's rituals around death: who will be there, what they will be doing, where and when this will take place and how people might act or feel. Explain that they might see tears, straight faces and laughter. It may help to explain that a funeral is a time to:
- express sadness because someone has died
- honor the person who died and celebrate his or her life
- help comfort and support each other
- remember that life goes on
It would be helpful to describe how the room is set up and where the person who died will be—in a casket (open or closed) or cremated—and how that person will look (use of make-up) and feel (cold) if the child were to touch the person who died. Explain the purpose of each ritual.
There are certain terms like casket and visitation that you may want to explain to your children (see Funeral Terms). Older children may want to know what to say (see Funeral Etiquette). Providing as much age-appropriate, factual information up front will help arm children with the understanding they'll need to face the event that may be new to them. It is a common response for parents to want to protect children from experiencing emotional pain, fear of sadness. Sometimes people try to “soften the blow” by avoiding the truth (i.e.: “grandma is sleeping”). It is best to avoid phrases like “sleeping” and “lost”.
Talking about Death
Children need to know that it is healthy to talk about death. Encourage open dialogue and the freedom to express opinions and feelings. Don't be afraid to answer questions with "I don't know the answer, but I'll get back to you on that." Consistent attention from caregivers and time are also important to help children come to terms with their loss. It's a good idea to find out what your child already knows and validate any feelings he or she may express. Then tell the story simply and honestly.
Explain how you might feel when someone dies—sad, mad, confused—and that it is OK to cry or want to talk or need time alone. Children learn by example, so don't hide your own feelings. Showing your own grief gives children permission to show theirs, while holding grief back may inadvertently teach children to suppress their own sad feelings. You may also want to explain that while remembering your loved one's life, it is normal to also laugh at funny stories or smile at fond memories.
Some children may feel responsible for the death—they forgot to visit last week or said a mean word yesterday—and it is important to communicate that they were in no way responsible.
Behavior at Funerals
It's important to explain to children that certain behavior will be expected of them, such as sitting still, talking nicely to adults and not running around. Keep in mind that younger children have shorter attention spans. Duksa Family Funeral Homes provide families with a special children's room that has simple art supplies, TV and DVD player for children to take a break and are always nearby for when family and friends who want to visit them. Many families assign friends or family to keep the children occupied while others prefer using paid caregivers.
If an immediate family member has died, it is important to give children permission to be involved. They may be interested in helping choose the casket, outfit, jewelry, special handkerchief or scarf, music or readings. Older children may read poems or readings, shyer children may light candles, and younger children may place letters, artwork or mementos into the casket.
Kid Focused Touches
Children often remember the more tangible events at services. Duksa FamilyFuneral Homes offers dove, butterfly or environmentally-friendly balloon releases that can signify the end of the funeral or the circle of life.
When Children Do Not Want to Attend
If a child does not want to attend the funeral, gently mention that he or she may later regret missing out on this important day. Remind the child that a close relative or adult friend will be nearby the whole time. If a child absolutely does not want to attend a visitation or funeral, do not force him or her to do so. Try to have the child attend at least one small part; taking part in even some of the rituals helps the child to understand and feel less alone. Suggest to your child to spend time in the children’s room. By being nearby it will allow them to experience the love of family. It is important to continue to assist your child in his or her grieving process.
Older generations may not be used to involving children in funerals and may say things like "The children will:
- not understand."
- be a disturbance."
- be afraid."
- ask too many questions."
Only you can decide what is right for your family and how you want to help your family to grieve. To learn more about what the experts believe, Nichole Schwerman, Bereavement Coordinator at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin recommends the following books:
Tear Soup, Pat Schweibert and Chuck Deklyen
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
Beyond Tears, Ellen Mitchell
Guiding Your Child Through Grief, Mary Ann and James Ernswiler
Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas, Alan Wolfelt
Helping Children Grieve and Grow, Donna O'Toole and Jerre Cory
Living with Grief: Who We Are, How We Grieve, Kenneth J. Doka
Living With Grief: Children, Adolescents and Loss, Kenneth J. Doka
Healing Your Grieving Heart for Kids, Alan Wolfelt
I Heard Your Daddy Died, Mark Scrivani
I Heard Your Mommy Died, Mark Scrivani
Lost and Found: Remembering a Sister, Ellen Yeomans
Someone Special Died, Joan Singleton Prestine
What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies?, Trevor Roman
When a Pet Dies, Fred Rogers
Fire in My Heart, Ice in My Veins: A Journal for Teenagers Experiencing a Loss, Enid Samuel Traisman
Straight Talk about Death for Teenagers, Earl Grollman
When a Friend Dies: A Book for Teens about Grieving and Healing, Marilyn Gootman
When Death Walks In, Mark Scrivani