Helping children cope with funerals
A death in the family brings up many questions about life for a child. One of the biggest in the beginning is, "What is this funeral thing I keep hearing about?"
If your child has never dealt with the grieving process, including funerals, it's best to explain what they are, and hopefully involve him or her in the process and planning before you go.
Your child may be wondering lots of things, but be afraid to ask:
- "Will I see a dead body?"
- "What will it look like?"
- "Will I be scared?"
- "Will everyone be sad?"
How can you explain the funeral to your child?
You may want to explain the funeral as something like this: a celebration of the person's life and a way to say goodbye.
Explain the different types of funerals to your curious child. Will it be open casket, where they will see their loved one's body? Or will it be a memorial service, where the body won't be present? Will they put the body in the ground?
Take the time to tell your child about what will happen. When you get there, how many people do you expect to be there? Will they have to walk down the aisle of a church with the family? Are they allowed to cry (of course they are)? Explain that there will be crying but also laughter too as family and friends share stories.
Involving children in the service
The best funerals are the ones where the spirit of the deceased is alive in the room. It may be a good idea to ask your child "What do you think ____ would have liked to have had as his or her celebration of life?" You may get some great ideas for songs, flowers, colors or clothing for the deceased to be buried in. You can be as creative as you want for the funeral, and children are a great way to help you keep an open mind.
Having children help with the funeral arrangements may also ease their anxiety about the ritual. If they walk into the church and see the flowers they picked out, or the drawings they drew in memory, it will help them feel more at home.
Children come up with some out-of-the-box ideas. Here are some questions that might start their little minds working:
- What do you think ____ would like to be buried with?
- What kind of music made _____ happiest?
- What were some favorite things of _____?
- Would you like to write a poem or a story to read at the funeral?
If you're working with a funeral director, make sure he or she knows that the child wants to be involved in the funeral. You may want to request a small stool so that the little ones can stand on their own to say goodbye to their loved one.
A children's visitation is another optionYou may also want to request a children's visitation, where the funeral director opens the service about an hour early to give the family time to ask any questions they have and get an explanation of how the body will be cared for. Your funeral director will certainly be more experienced in explaining all the aspects of death to children.
At these pre-funeral viewings, children can draw pictures to put in the casket or put trinkets in the pockets of the deceased.
Some things not to do
Don't cremate the body until you ask the children if they would like to see it to say goodbye, unless the manner of death means that this is not an option. Sometimes the things we do to "protect" children actually block them from their grieving process. Some children aren't allowed to go to the funeral, and hence feel left out from the family course of bereavement.
Don't force children to go. Make sure they get a full explanation of what the funeral is, and then let them make their own decision. If they still don't want to go, take pictures or videotape the funeral. You can also give them the details of how it was and what happened.
Don't make the child feel guilty if he or she doesn't want to go. Make sure they have a safe place to stay with a person who knows not to make them feel bad about not being at the funeral. You can have them have their own little celebration of the deceased's life, perhaps by drawing a picture of what the funeral might look like, or writing a good-bye letter.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Children: helping a child cope with death section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find grief books for children.