We recently had a death in the family: My husband’s aunt passed away after many years of illness. This was the first family death that our children have been aware of, and they had some questions. As we live far from family, only my husband flew up for the funeral, but it did lead to a discussion as to whether it would have been appropriate to include our pre-teen children, had we lived closer, and in what capacity. I did some research on the matter, and have come up with some tips to consider. While we hope that you will not have the need for these suggestions for how to deal with kids and funerals any time soon, keep them in mind for when and if you need them:
- Try not to force it either way. If your child was close to the deceased, ask him how he feels about attending. Not allowing a child to say goodbye to a beloved grandparent or uncle could be as detrimental as forcing him to attend a funeral that he finds scary or disturbing. While you probably won’t want to bring a toddler to a funeral if you can help it, children from preschool-aged into their teens should have at least some input on the decision of whether they will be attending, if possible.
- Tell your child who will be there, what will happen, what the timeframe is, and why you are gathering together to honor the deceased. Be sure to find out and tell your child if there will be an open casket; while little ones might not be disturbed at the sight of the body, older kids may be. If there will be an open casket at the wake but not the actual funeral, and you think that your child will not be able to handle it, you could always include her only in the graveside service. Prepare your child for the possibility that there will be people crying, and also prepare her for the possibility that people won’t be crying: if the person has been sick for a long time, the family may feel relieved that the deceased is no longer suffering.
- Allow your child to participate if he wants to. He could add something to the casket or light a candle. A young child might want to draw a picture, or an older child might want to write a letter. Teenaged children might be asked to act as pallbearers; allow your adolescent child to make this decision. Encourage him to do it as a way to honor the person who has died, but don’t insist or force him to.
- Talk about your family’s beliefs when it comes to what happens after death. If you believe that there is an afterlife of some sort, talk to your child about it. On the other hand, if you don’t have this belief, then let your child know that once a person dies, he no longer feels any pain or suffers at all. Use your discretion, and don’t be afraid to ask for the advice of your pastor or other religious leader, if you have one.
If the person who has died was very young or died suddenly and unexpectedly, or if your child was very close to the deceased, watch for signs of depression or anxiety. Anxiety or depression can also occur even if the person who died was sick or very old. If you see any changes in your child’s appetite or sleeping habits, or if he seems very sad or worried for a prolonged period of time, talk to his pediatrician about whether he may need counseling in order to get through this difficult time.