|Helpful Guidance and SupportÖ For
Parents For Teachers For All Caring Adults
My co-workerís seven-year-old son was devastated when his grandfather
died. Kyle had been very close to his grandfather, who used to give him
plenty of hugs and affectionate little pats on the arm. Kyle said he
wanted to go to the visitation at the funeral home. When he got there, he
walked right up to the casket without hesitation and patted his grandpa on
the arm, just as Grandpa had done to him so many times before.
Parents often wonder whether they should
include their child in the funeral and burial services when a friend or
relative dies. They worry that their child may be too little to
understand, or that seeing the body will be too traumatic.
Clinical psychologist Lyn Sontag insists,
however, that "children should be included appropriately in all family
grieving rituals. Death is part of life, and grief is part of the human
emotional spectrum. Funeral rites are for the living to process the death
and say good-bye. For kids to be shut out is wrong and potentially
Excluding your child from the funeral can
make her feel that she is not a real part of the family, and that her
feelings about the death somehow donít count. Including her, on the other
hand, gives her the opportunity to grieve and begin to let go, within the
comforting arms of family and friends. The key to making funeral services
a positive, meaningful, and healing experience for a child is
As much as possible, let your child know
exactly what to expect from the funeral rituals your family will attend.
Talk about what the service or ritual signifies: that it is an opportunity
for those who knew and loved the deceased to support and comfort each
other in their sadness. It is a chance to honor that personís life- to
remember and tell stories, to laugh and to cry.
If you will be attending a wake with an
open casket, describe to your child what the funeral home looks like,
particularly the room where the casket will be. Tell him that many people
send flower arrangements to express their sympathy to the family and to
celebrate the beauty of the personís life. Explain the body of the person
will be there, in a special box called a casket, but that you will only be
able to see the upper portion of the body.
Be sure to prepare your child for the
appearance of the body: The body will be specially "made up" and the
person may seem younger than before. The body will be very still, not
breathing, because it isnít working anymore. And it will be firm and cold
to the touch. Donít insist that your child touch the body or "kiss
Grandma," as this can be traumatic for a child, who is accustomed to a
living, breathing, warm and cuddly Grandma.
Talk about what to wear and how to behave.
If the deceased person is immediate family, tell your child that people
may say, "Iím sorry," and that a suitable response is "Thank you."
Tell your child this is a good time for us
to say a final good-bye in our hearts to our loved one: to tell Aunt Sissy
how much we love her and will miss her, or how sorry we are for something
we regret, or to say a prayer for her.
Be sure to arrange for an adult to look
after your child- someone not immediately involved in the funeral, who
understands kidsí needs and their thresholds of boredom and fatigue. This
adult can take your child out for a break or a walk if he becomes
overwhelmed, tired, or distracted.
If your child doesnít want to attend the
funeral services, see if you can determine why. You may be able to uncover
some unrealistic fears or fantasies which you can dispel through simple
explanation. If your child still adamantly refuses to go, however, give
him the option of staying home with a friend or a trusted sitter.
Including children in funeral rites helps them to accept the reality
of death and begin the process of letting go. This is especially important
for younger children, who may expect the deceased person to come walking
through the door at any time, or may continue to search or wait for that
|The church and burial services
If there is to be a church ceremony, go
over the readings ahead of time and explain the significance of the
various parts of the service. This will help your child pay attention and
get more out of the service.
Talk with your child about the need to
bury the body, and discuss the elements of the burial service of your
faith tradition- for example, the procession, the prayers or blessings,
throwing on a handful of dirt, the lowering of the casket.
If the body is to be cremated, and the
child was very close to the deceased, try to arrange to spend some time
with the body before cremation. Talk about the cremation process and how
this doesnít hurt the body, which can no longer feel any pain.
As much as possible, let your child be a
part of the funeral services. She might want to create a drawing or poem
to place on a table set aside for photos and memorabilia. She could
suggest one of the songs, or do one of the readings or prayers at the
liturgy. She could place a flower on the casket during the burial service.
Preparing your child to attend aÖ
let your child know exactly what to expect.|
any reluctance, and talk about it.|
force your child to attend if she refuses.|
the significance of the various rituals.|
your beliefs about life after death. |
her to participate in the services. |
her visit the cemetery during the next year. |
Some children want to place good-bye notes
or photos into the casket before it is closed, a healthy way of keeping a
sense of love and connection. One girl whose father had died of cancer
tucked her teddy bear in with him. Another child, whose father had been
very active in his sports programs, placed a prized trophy into the
Sometime during the year after the death,
suggest a visit to the cemetery. Plan in advance to take flowers or a note
or some other meaningful object to place on the grave. Ask your child how
she felt about visiting the grave and whether she would like to do so
again in the future.
Dealing with feelings and sharing beliefs
Kyle had dozens of questions
arising from the death and the funeral, ranging from "What happens to our
bodies after we die?" to "Where is heaven?" to "Why do bad things happen?"
to "Will I ever see Grandpa again?" His parents have answered the
questions they can, asked for help with the answers they donít know, and,
in some cases, have said simply, "We donít know."
Funeral rituals are wonderful springboards
to discussions about your beliefs related to life, death, and the
afterlife. Since there are abstract concepts involved, be sure to ask your
child questions to determine his level of understanding: "What is
your idea of heaven?" "What do you think happened when Uncle Eddie died?"
A word to the wise
At the same time as you are searching for
the right words and the best way to introduce your child to funeral
services, be attuned to what other people may be telling your child.
Beware of ideas such as, "God loved your
mother so much, he took her to heaven." This may seem to imply that Momís
family on earth didnít love her enough. Even seemingly harmless
expressions, such as, "Sheís better off now," can confuse a child who
canít imagine that thereís anything "better" about being dead.
Be especially attentive to your older
childís security needs. He is not a "little kid" and so feels funny about
crying or clinging or sitting on your lap. But he is not yet a
"sophisticated," self-sufficient teen. Find age-appropriate ways of giving
him love, support, and reassurance.
Bringing It Home
In reaching out to pat his grandpaís arm, Kyle knew instinctively:
there is something that can reach across the chasm between life and death,
something that ties us forever to those who have died- and that thing is
love. This is what we celebrate and remember in our funeral services.
The Grieving Child: A Parentís Guide by Helen
Fitzgerald, New York, Fireside, 1992. How Do We Tell the Children? A
Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children Two to Teen Cope When Someone Dies
by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons, New York, Newmarket Press, 1993. Tell
Me, Papa: A Family Book for Childrenís Questions About Death and Funerals
by Joy Johnson and Marvin Johnson, Centering Corporation, Omaha, 1978. For
younger kids: Sad Isnít Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With
Loss by Michaelene Mundy, St. Meinrad, Indiana, Abbey Press, 1998.