Should I let my child go to a funeral?
When is your child old enough to attend a loved one's funeral?
The Queen’s funeral raised an interesting question this week: should young children attend funerals? We asked two of our Grief Specialists to share their thoughts.
”Because all feelings are normal and natural, including sad or painful ones it would be easy to say “yes of course.” The real question is whether your child is old enough to hang around relatively quietly while the adults do what they must do. If they can do that then yes, they should go,” said Carole Henderson.
And Dawn Ford stated: “ There is no correct answer. Children, like adults, are all unique; it has to be the choice of the individual.”
Crucially before a funeral happens the child needs to know what to expect and what your expectations are of them, so both advise that you’ll need to have some discussion before the event:
First explain to your child that a funeral is a special event that happens after somebody has died. It is a ceremony where we go to remember someone, hear and talk about their life, and so we can say goodbye.
It’s often a good idea to discuss any religious or spiritual beliefs your family has about the soul or spirit and what happens to it after death. You might also explain how this is different to what the family of the person who died believes. Make your own decisions on how much detail is needed on this, and answer questions your child has as fully and honestly as you can.
Next talk about where the funeral will take place – and the need to sit quietly and respectfully during the ceremony. If the funeral includes a burial you will also need to explain what happens at the cemetery, or for a cremation that the coffin may be moved by a conveyor belt and go behind some curtains. If children are prepared for what will happen, they are far less likely to have a strong reaction.
Mention that it is okay to cry if they want to, but it is also okay if they don’t want to. Also, explain that many of the grown ups may be crying as they are sad because someone they love has died, and that being sad is normal.
In British culture, it is common for the coffin to be sealed. If the funeral is for someone of a different culture or belief system, then the body may be in a shroud rather than a coffin, or there may be an open casket. It is worth checking both, so that you know what to expect and so that you can explain these differences to your child.
Explain that after the ceremony you may go to a home or another place where there might be food. They might also see people laughing and smiling as they share happy memories and stories and this is normal too.
Carole remarked: “If your child is just beginning to understand the concept of death, the process will be helpful for them as you reduce their fears about death by telling them the truth. The time you invest in giving them detailed explanations will be invaluable.
“If the funeral is for someone close to the child it is important that they do attend. Being denied the opportunity has the potential to have huge negative consequences for their emotional health and their relationship with the person who they perceived to have stopped them saying goodbye,” Carole concluded.
Dawn added: “From my own experience I was desperately sad that my mum didn’t allow me to go to my granddad’s funeral. It seemed grossly unfair and wrong on so many levels. I remember asking to attend his funeral. I remember my mum saying no and I remember feeling unbelievably sad. I felt left out, like my feelings didn’t matter. I really wanted to say goodbye. I was not given that opportunity to do so. And that hurt.”
Dawn’s advice is:
ASK them what they would like to do. Would they like to go to the funeral or prefer to stay away?
Would they like to contribute to the service, write a poem, do a drawing, bring along a toy?
If they do want to attend, then maybe have a ‘plan B.’ If at all possible, sit at the back where you can take them out if at any time if it becomes too much for them. Be led by your child, or children.
Dawn commented: “I’d like to mention here the crucial importance of emotional language.
“We must be careful not to say things such as, ‘He/she’s gone away,’ as this provokes unanswered questions, such as, ‘Where?’ or ‘When are they coming back?’
“Avoid saying,’They’re sleeping’.... for how long, when will they wake up? This can also result in an immense fear around sleeping for fear of what might happen.
‘We’ve lost him/her’.... again, where have they gone? How did they get lost?
“The reality is unquestionable when we use the words; ‘die,’ ‘death, or ‘bereavement.’
There really is no way to circumvent death. And funerals, of whatever faith, religious or not, are part of that process.
“Children can be far more resilient than we give them credit for - but as adults we often pass on to them our fears,our awkwardness, our unresolved grief and that’s not fair, and it’s definitely not healthy either,” Dawn concluded.
By Carole Henderson and Dawn Ford