Q.My father has been in hospice care in our home and we’ve been told he will die soon. Should my wife and I take our children to their grandfather’s funeral? Our children are two, seven, and ten years old. Our seven-year-old is an anxious child who is afraid of everything. And the
10-year-old knows no fear.
A. In checking the literature about taking children to funerals, experts recommend giving older children a choice as to whether or not they want to go. If the child has never been to a funeral, he may be lacking information to make that decision. I wouldn’t force a child to go if they are refusing. But simply saying, “I’d like you to go and you can sit next to Dad and me,” could quiet the concern. If that doesn’t work, then hiring a favorite babysitter may be a more comfortable option.
If you decide to offer a child the choice, help her to look at the pros and cons of attending. For younger children, like your 2-year-old, it may be difficult to sit still. In this case, you may want to leave the child at home during the funeral service where people are expected to sit quietly in their seats. It may be easier for a 2-year-old to handle other parts of the day, like visitation or graveside rites, as these experiences typically don’t require sitting still.
Here are some additional suggestions for you:
1. Look at your father’s death as a teaching opportunity. Explain death in an age appropriate way, as well as what to expect at their grandfather’s funeral, including visitation, the formality of the funeral, graveside services or other rituals and ceremonies. By age seven, children can understand the permanence of death.
2. Reassure your children that, although everyone dies, you are healthy and don’t intend to die for a long time— if that’s the truth of your situation.
3. Explain what behavior is expected if there is an open casket. Can they touch the body? Can they leave something in the casket like a stuffed animal or a toy?
4. Encourage your children to ask questions about death and funeral customs. There are many age appropriate children’s books available that cover this topic.
5. Enlist the help of a friend who would be willing to take one or more children from the service to a quiet place if they become bored, restless, overwhelmed, or just want to leave. This adult friend is referred to as a “Good Shepherd” by Kenneth Doka in his article about children and funerals in Psychology Today (May 2018).
6. Encourage your children to take a comforting item, like a stuffed animal, to the visitation or to the funeral.
7. With an anxious child like your seven-year-old, go slowly in explaining how the funeral activities will unfold. Be patient with any feelings that arise.
8. Answer your child’s questions clearly and calmly. Children may simply ask, “What are funerals for?” You might say that funerals help us say goodbye to our loved ones; share memories with others; remember the person and celebrate his life; or allow us to cry, or perhaps to laugh at funny memories.
9. Allow children to help with the service when appropriate. At some funerals I’ve attended, children and grandchildren have recited poetry or short verses which may also be printed in the program. More mature children with immediate ties to the deceased may help choose flowers, music, or other personal elements that make the service special and memorable.
The important thing about children attending funerals is to provide a comforting experience. I do want to point out that in therapy, and in other settings, I hear adults talk about regretting not being able to attend funerals as a child. I never hear people say they attended a funeral service and wish they hadn’t.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.