For a child, experiencing a death can be even more devastating than for an adult. Children of all ages have too little life experience to put the death into any kind of meaningful perspective, and also have less ability to communicate their feelings. Therefore, it is essential that children be guided carefully and thoughtfully through their experiences with death and funerals.
They need honest, clear and gentle answers to their questions, and an opportunity to express their emotions. Participating in the funeral service at a level that is comfortable and appropriate to their age can be a great way for children to deal with their grief and acknowledge their loss.
Each child has their own comfort zone where funerals are concerned, and it is important for parents and others to respect that. Stories abound of children being traumatised by being compelled to kiss a deceased relative ‘goodbye’. By the same token, many adults are resentful that their parents prevented them from attending the funeral services of family members, sometimes even making up a story that the deceased was away on a long trip. Here is a guide to finding the right level of funeral service participation for your child.
How to talk to a child about death
A frank and gentle discussion about the death sets the stage for a child to deal with it in a healthy way. Parents should use age appropriate terms, but avoid euphemisms like ‘went to rest’ or ‘is visiting God’ when talking with their children. This is certainly a wonderful time to teach your children about your faith, but don’t cloud the issue. You should communicate clearly that the person is dead and will not be waking up or returning in this lifetime. Keep your explanation clear and simple.
Allow your child to ask any questions they have, and don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know the answers. Answers to theosophical questions may come from clergy, and technical questions can be addressed by your funeral director.
Levels of participation
Participation in a funeral service can take place in many ways, ranging from simply being present, to presenting the eulogy. It can be public, like serving as a pall bearer, or private, like placing a picture or memento into the coffin or casket. What type or level of participation is appropriate depends upon the age, talents and inclination of your child.
Infants, toddlers, and very young children who have no understanding of death have no need, beyond the convenience of their parents, for attending funeral services. Children of this age are welcome at visitations and funeral services, and their presence helps to remind us of new beginnings. An occasional cry or laugh from a baby during a funeral service helps us all remember the big picture of life. However, remember that a visitation or service can be a long time for little ones to be on their best behavior, and most funeral homes do not provide childcare. If bringing your very young child to a service is your best option, consider asking a more distant relative to help out with supervising your child.
Preschoolers are old enough to understand the basics of death and could participate in some meaningful way. Depending on how close they were to the deceased, this may be a very big deal for them. Participation at this age can range from being present at the service, to viewing the deceased and placing a picture or meaningful object in the coffin or casket. Or with assistance, they may even sprinkle sand or a flower on the coffin or casket or grave. What’s important here is allowing the child the opportunity to engage in these activities. If they are interested, guide them through it without pressuring.
If they are fearful or reluctant, allow them to opt out without guilt. How parents feel about participation and death will inevitably color the child’s perception, but try your best to allow your child to participate as much as they feel comfortable with.
Elementary school children can vary quite a bit in their capacity and interest in participation, even at the same age level. Often these children are curious about how things work. Encourage their questions, and if you don’t know the answer, ask your clergy or funeral director to explain. Children may wonder why the legs of the deceased are not visible in the coffin or casket, why flowers were sent, or how the coffin or casket-lowering device at the grave works. Creating an atmosphere that welcomes questions can prevent children from misunderstanding basic facts and possibly be traumatised by the assumptions they might make.
At this age, children may be ready to participate in a public way by bringing up the gifts at mass, walking along with adult pallbearers, or preparing artwork for a visitation. Some more mature children may be ready to read a lesson or poem. Again, it is important to guide participation if there is an interest. If there is a reluctance or fear, allow the child to opt out. Their participation is for their own benefit, not a requirement to ‘prove’ their regard for the deceased. Some children in this age group may benefit from having a close friend, or cousin accompany them to provide moral support during visitation and service times.
Middle school and high school age children already have difficult times in their transitions to adulthood. Dealing with the death of a loved one adds another level of complication to their world. Teens may feel embarrassed by participating in services, and have difficulty getting along with other family members. Nonetheless, the added maturity of the teen years means that interested kids may derive a great level of satisfaction and healing from actively participating in services.
Musical performances, coffin or casket bearing, and the sharing of remembrances become real possibilities in this age group. It is important to remember, in dealing with adolescents, that they are not yet adults. A death can turn our whole world upside down, and may be a time when adolescents prefer to grieve and receive comfort from adults, rather than ‘rise to the occasion’ to be the new adult in the family. At this age, relationships with friends can take the place of relationships with family, but teens may not have very good advice or support for one another, so be sure that your teen has the support they need, and that their questions and concerns are dealt with seriously. Participation can bring great comfort to the grieving. Acting out time honored rituals, or expressing our love and feelings of loss in a funeral or memorial service can help children, as well as adults, acknowledge the importance of our loved ones and our relationship with them. It is a final gift to the deceased, and helps us to move forward into our new relationship with them, and back into our lives.