Funerals and memorial services can help family, friends and community honor and say goodbye to a loved one – but are they appropriate for children?
While not easy, these rituals may help a child better understand the permanence of death and express their feelings. Beliefs about death, grief and funerals are deeply influenced by a family’s culture, religion and spirituality, and being left out of something so important may be more distressing.
Here, Barbara Allen, a CHOC licensed marriage and family therapist, offers some tips for parents and caregivers to support children before, during and after a funeral:
Let the child decide
A child’s age should not dictate whether they attend or not. Chronological age has nothing to do with whether the child should attend a funeral.
Assisting your child to choose whether they attend or not is the most important first step. It’s common for older adults who were not given a choice as a child to attend a funeral to express resentment later.
Empower children to decide whether they attend a service. Parents and caregivers should encourage but not pressure children to attend. Parents and caregivers need to be supportive of the child’s decision even if it is not what the adults think is best.
It is important to explain to the child, in an age-appropriate way, what will happen at the service before asking them what they want to do. Explain what the child may see or hear at the event, such as singing, a casket or urn, or religious rituals that might happen. Don’t forget to also explain how people might act, including that grown-ups might be crying.
It is also important to explain what the child will do if they decide not to go. Be mindful to not make the alternative more exciting than the funeral. For example, do not offer a trip to an amusement park instead of the funeral.
Prepare your child in advance
Should your child decide to attend the funeral, some prep work will be helpful.
In addition to telling them what to expect, tell them how you might personally react at the service. Assure them that if you are crying or quiet, this is how you are showing sadness, but that you are OK.
Consider your personal limitations on caring for yourself and your child at the funeral. Depending on the situation, you might need a friend or family member to help support your child. If you do enlist help, prepare the support person to comfort the child or take them out of the setting for breaks, if needed. This will help your child manage the services – and allow you the space to experience your own feelings.
Explain the event’s logistics. For example, let the child know a special section of seats might be reserved for immediate family or that they might need to wear dressier clothes. Help your child understand what they will need to do at the services, such as being quiet and sitting still for long stretches.
Explain who will be there. What will happen. Where the funeral will take place. When it will happen. Why we are doing this.
Ask if the child would like to participate in the funeral
After explaining more about the funeral, ask the child if they would like to do something in memory of their loved one at the funeral, especially if they had a special bond.
Children express their grief in different ways than adults. They may want to share a piece of art they have created about their loved one, share a favorite song that reminds them of their loved one, tell a story about their loved one, or share a dance in the loved one’s memory.
Be supportive even if you think that their suggestion is inappropriate. Think of ways to help them participate in a way that is respectful and takes into consideration what the child would like to do.
Participation can be very healing for a child in the same ways it is for adults.
Practice what they are going to do before the funeral. Help them understand that it may be more difficult when they are at the funeral and prepare in advance for the caregiver or a trusted adult to be able to finish or explain what the child was going to do.
Remember this is their choice and it is OK if they decide on the day of the funeral that they have changed their mind. Support whatever decisions they make.
Make alternative arrangements
If the child doesn’t attend the services after considering their options, there are still many ways to help them say goodbye to a loved one. Here are some ideas for rituals:
- With close adult supervision, light candles at home or in a public place to remember those who died. Battery-operated votive candles are an alternative.
- Work together to design a ceremony that is consistent with their own culture, religion or tradition.
- Offer to look at pictures together of the loved one, or ask if they’d like a framed photo of the person in their room.
- Say prayers together at home or in their places of worship.
- Create and send notes or cards to the loved one’s close family.
- Tell stories and memories of the loved one.
Prepare for the aftermath
Memorial services can be emotionally taxing, but the process will continue afterward for children and adults alike.
This can be a critical time due to the abundance of support that families generally get before the funeral. Often after the funeral there is less support and the death of the loved one begins to take on a different meaning as day-to-day life resumes.
Follow up with your child to talk about their feelings and questions. Reassure them that their feelings are valid, and consider that they might need help naming these complicated emotions. There are many books written for children about death. Choose a few that you feel will help your child express their emotions and read these with them.
Find ways to keep talking about the loved one. The family can create a jar where family members can put in questions, memories or concerns. Then once a week, the family gathers around and pulls the papers out to start discussions about the loved one. Later this can be used to fill up with memories that any family member can go to when they need to remember their loved one.
Younger children may talk more when they are engaged in physical activities. Engage them in a play activity that they may have enjoyed with the loved one and then talk about the loved one while participating in the play activity.
If the child has a creative outlet or talent, encourage them to use this as a way to express their experiences. If they are willing, have them share this with the family.
Make arrangements to spend more time with and support your child afterward – particularly at bedtime. Be prepared for repeated questions about the event, even at times that seem to come suddenly out of nowhere. Ask them if they might want to talk to someone else such as a clergy, teacher or doctor about the experience and offer to join them.
Be mindful of moments of separation with your child. Children may worry that something bad might happen to their family. Reassure them by explaining where you are going and when you’ll return so they know what to expect.
Don’t forget your needs. Taking care of yourself is a critical part of supporting your child. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a friend, loved one or mental health professional if you need to talk about your feelings.
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The mental health team at CHOC curated the following resources on mental health topics common to kids and teens, such as depression, anxiety, suicide prevention and more.