For many people, the question, should children attend funerals? is a polarizing one.

While some agree, many disagree when it comes to children at funerals. Yet,  Doctor Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of psychology and counselling at the College of New Rochelle says, “Ask the child.”

But if a child has never seen a funeral, how can he or she make a choice about attending?

Children are remarkably resilient when given the facts.

KEY SUMMARY POINTS

  • Inform children about the process of death and what to expect.
  • Give children the option to attend a funeral.
  • Books help – Goodbye Grandma is one example.
  • Opt-out plans keep children content at funerals.
  • Experiencing funerals builds resilience for adulthood.

Outline what to expect at a funeral

What to expect means outlining the funeral process in an age-appropriate way. That includes announcing the death, describing what happens at a funeral and processing grief. 

Modern parenting sanitizes death

For many modern parents protecting children from everything, from losing to boredom also means shielding them from death.

Yet, in the not too distant past, the life and death cycle played out in the family home. Family members and children gathering under one roof to welcome a newborn or prepare a deceased loved one’s body was a normal part of life.

Hospitalisation of death

Today, the majority die in hospital with medical staff attending to the body. Funeral directors then collect the deceased from the hospital morgue. Some family members never see their departed loved one again unless for an open-casket viewing at the funeral gives them a chance to say a final goodbye.

Death from a child’s perspective

Think of how mysterious the death process must appear to a child. One minute Grandma was sating in her hospital bed, and the next day Grandma was ‘gone’ forever.  And after Grandma’s mysterious disappearance, a child hears adults discussing something called the funeral. Along with many strange words they hear their name in the middle of lively debates about attending the funeral. Dad says, no. Aunty says, yes. Mom says she’s too upset for the children to see her that way.

Is it any surprise children become fearful, angry, confused, or withdraw when there is a death in the family? No one is explaining what is going on.

Books to explain death to children

Two new books, Goodbye Grandma and Goodbye Grandpa help modern parents discuss and demystify death for children. Photographs and illustrations work to show children what happens when there is a death in the family. Importantly, the books prepare children for what comes next, including dealing with grief as a family.

Inside pages of Goodbye Grandma by Denise Gibb
Younger children need help in understanding the concept of death and that it is permanent. Thus the words read, Grandma died because her body stopped working. A body can stop working because it’s old, extremely sick or broken beyond repair.
Inside pages Goodbye Grandma - inside coffin
Seeing where Grandma has gone, aids the understanding of death. Thus the words read, Grandma’s body is now inside a coffin ready for her funeral.
Inside pages of Goodbye Grandma showing a couple crying.
Children don’t usually see adults cry. So, knowing that crying at a funeral is a healthy grief reaction at a funeral is important.  Thus the words read, Some people will cry—even mummy and daddy. Others will look sad. But inside, we all have happy memories of Grandma.
Inside pages of Goodbye Grandma showing a funeral at a cemetery.
Helping children understand the purpose of a funeral is important. So too, is introducing the family’s spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions relating to death and grief. Thus the words read,  Afterwards, families visit their Grandma and put flowers on her grave. But not all funerals are held in a cemetery.

From sharing the news of the death through to the funeral and dealing with the grief that follows, books like Goodbye Grandma and Goodbye Grandpa are the best way for modern parents to discuss the life and death cycle.

Avoid coercing children

Doctor Doka also warns against coercing or using bribery to sway a child’s decision. For example. “If you don’t come to the funeral, staying with Mrs Smith is your only option—and I know you don’t like her house.” Or “If don’t come to the funeral, you can spend the day with your friends at the water park.”  The latter option is so attractive, what child wouldn’t opt for a familiar, fun day out over an unknown event that is making adults sad, confused and angry.  

However, if a child chooses not to attend the funeral, provide a neutral and safe alternative. For example, “It’s okay that you don’t want to come with us to the funeral. The babysitter will look after you until we get home.”

Opt-out plans for children attending a funeral

Many parents distraught by death don’t want their children at the funeral because they feel unable to cope emotionally. In that scenario,  opt-out plans prove invaluable for children.

Ask a close family friend to be your child’s funeral support companion. That way, the support companion can answer any questions the funeral raises for your child. Plus that person can keep your child engaged, give comfort and explain why people are crying.

Children denied attending a funeral express disappointment

In all his years of counselling, Doctor Doka reports children rarely report resenting the opportunity to attend a funeral.  Helen Mackinnon, a certified counselor who trains adults in how to deal with death, reports similar findings.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Mackinnon explains her sessions start with asking adults if any of them ever went to a funeral when they were primary school age. “A few hands usually go up. But when I ask who remembers wanting to go to a funeral but not being allowed, a forest of hands always shoot up.”

Now that dying rarely happens at home, teaching the skills to deal with death is more important than ever.

Experiencing death builds resilience

Why not help children see death as part of a natural life cycle? Provide the facts, free of fear.  Give children a choice to attend a funeral. Doing so will help build emotional resilience, strengthen decision-making skills and put children on the path to balanced and happy adulthood.

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