Children and Funerals

Childrenandfunerals 315

By adulthood, most people have attended a funeral. But what is a funeral like for a child or teenager who unexpectedly loses a parent, sibling, grandparent, or friend? And how do children say goodbye? What do they need, and how can families and funeral services address their needs?

Valuing Their Opinions

Too often, kids feel like the “forgotten mourners.” They are seen but not heard or spoken to at a funeral. Often what they get is a pat on the head or hugs from adults they don’t even know.

Many adults still wonder if it’s a good idea to include children in funerals at all. While every family has its own traditions and beliefs — and these play a strong role in funeral and memorial service planning and decisions — parents may not be aware that one of the most helpful things they can do for their children during this time is to give them choices. Children appreciate having choices as much as adults do. They have opinions, and they want to be valued enough to be allowed to offer them. And they don’t like to be left out of anything, even a funeral.

It is a meaningful and important experience for children to have the opportunity to say goodbye to the person who died in a way that feels right to them. Saying goodbye is never easy, but it helps bring a sense of finality to the death … that is helpful in the healing process.

Deciding If They Should Attend

“They didn’t let me go to the funeral. They said I was too young. I’m still mad.” — Paul, 8.

People often wonder at what age a child should attend a funeral. Age is not the most important consideration. Generally speaking, young children don’t seem to have the fear of the deceased or dead bodies adults think they do. What works well is to invite children or teenagers to the funeral, without forcing them to make a particular decision. Children who are not allowed to attend a funeral may feel they didn’t get their chance to say goodbye. On the other hand, children who were forced to attend a funeral may feel resentful. Children should not be criticized if they don’t want to attend the funeral. They may regret the decisions they make, but they won’t have the added issue of resentment for not being allowed to make their own choice.

In order to make their choice, children need explanations and information about what a funeral is and what is going to happen. After a death, the world as they know it is completely changed. Additional surprises and unfamiliar situations can complicate the grieving process. Not unlike adults, kids like to be filled in on the basics of who, what, where, when and why.

Kids also expect us to be clear, direct and concrete in our explanations. Teenagers appreciate this, too. They are experts at discerning when adults are beating around the bush. When explaining the events of a funeral to child, it’s best to “tell it like it is.” Be sure to include:

• Who … will be at the funeral or memorial service?

• What … is going to happen?

• Where … will the service take place?

• When … will the funeral happen?

• Why … are we doing this?

What happens, or doesn’t happen, at a funeral will be remembered forever by a child. Parents and other caregivers have the opportunity to influence a child’s experience by including the child in the one way he or she most deserves and requests: informed choice.

Reprinted from online content by The Dougy Center, Adapted from the book, “What About The Kids: Understanding Their Needs in Funeral Planning and Services.”

How to Create a Memory

Comforting children through their confusion and anger over the loss of a loved one can be difficult. A new book, “Chester Raccoon and the Acorn Full of Memories” by Audrey Penn (Tanglewood Press, 2009), may be able to help. In it, Chester learns his friend Skiddel Squirrel had an accident and won’t be coming back – ever. His mother guides him and his friends through creating their own memories so they will never forget Skiddel Squirrel and always smile when they think of him. It’s a child-appropriate version of a funeral, which may help your kids decide whether they want to attend the official funeral or not.

– Heather Bailey