The Lucy Daniels Center received a question about whether two young children should attend a funeral. The advice that we offered would pertain to any family in such a situation. Here is the question and our answer.
Q: My wife's mother is terminally ill. Should our 3-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter attend their beloved grandmother's funeral service?
A: You are wise to pose this painful question now so that you have time to make a considered judgment. Children who attend funerals can participate, along with their loved ones, in a moment with enormous meaning to the family. Yet, there are many other factors to weigh.
Children's experience of funerals: A child generally experiences a funeral as a strange and disconcerting event. As if he has stepped into a dream and found himself in a new setting where unfamiliar things are happening. The mood at a funeral is probably different than any he has previously encountered. Parents may be overcome with emotion. A child may be so stressed that he removes himself psychologically from the situation by misbehaving, regressing or withdrawing.
We believe that young children who attend funerals must be accompanied and nurtured at all times by someone who can provide necessary support. The funeral will be happening at its own pace whether children can bear it or not; someone must be responsive to your children's pace. You and your wife will not be in a position to provide this kind of attentive care. Someone with whom your children have a pre-existing trusting relationship should provide this support. You should select someone who is not experiencing the death as a deeply personal loss. Under these circumstances, this adult can judge the children's tolerance for participation and provide comfort, diversion or discipline.
Saying goodbye: Your children - like the adults who will mourn your mother-in-law - need to say goodbye in a way that will provide meaning and comfort to them. Because their comprehension of death and ability to anticipate the future are very limited, children say goodbye gradually as their understanding of the situation grows. Children are, therefore, unlikely to use a funeral as part of their own mourning and healing. Letters, flowers on the graves, prayers during quiet, intimate family moments - all in their own time - are generally more meaningful ways for them to fulfill this need.
The child's age: Your decision is different for each of your children, since they will have different understandings of death and different abilities to tolerate the stress of a funeral. Your 3-year-old doesn't have a meaningful understanding of death. Even if he seems to understand at one point that he will not be seeing his grandmother again, he might ask the next moment what she will be sending him for his birthday. Therefore, he is unlikely to have a good understanding of the meaning of a funeral. Your 5-year-old should have a better understanding of the finality of death, although she will be still be confused about the meaning of death and the funeral service.
Preparation: Advance preparation helps children manage new and confusing situations because it enables them to ask questions and plan their responses. Prepared children are less likely to become anxious and will therefore be in better control of their behavior. Preparation for a funeral should include an explanation of the various components of the day. If there is an open casket, decide whether you want one or both of your children to view the body. If so, explain how that viewing will occur, and convey that grandmother will be wearing one of her favorite dresses, will look a little different because her body does not work any more, and cannot see or hear anyone. In both open and closed casket services, your children would be confronted with their grandmother being closed inside a box. They might know that grandmother cannot see, hear or think, yet worry that grandmother will be cold or lonely in the box and in the ground.
Review: There is only so much preparation that you can do; children have limited and individual tolerances for discussion. Picturing new experiences is difficult for young children. Furthermore, you can't think of every detail or fully anticipate what will impress your children. They will find aspects of the funeral confusing and upsetting even if you provide our recommended supports.
Children do not always share their confusion and upset. They may not even know how to start. In the specific situation of funerals, children may not want to make their parents sad or they might feel ashamed or guilty about their own thoughts and feelings. Therefore, if your children attend the funeral, we recommend that you continue to talk about the funeral in the subsequent weeks, sharing memories and feelings about various aspects of the day. You are more likely to learn your children's reactions, questions and possible misconceptions through indirect observations than you are through direct questioning.
Although it is hard, it is important that you support your children's right to sadly miss someone they loved. You may have beliefs that comfort you. But these beliefs won't fully remove your pain over the loss of a loved one in your daily life - you will need to grieve. Similarly, reassurances should be offered to children but in a way that does not merely suppress their pain. Successful grieving, in which you experience and work through loss, builds a child's confidence in his capacity to love and strengthens his capacity for deep future relationships.
Making the decision: Your decision about whether it is right for your children to be at their grandmother's funeral is a personal one. It involves your values, your spiritual beliefs, the extent to which it is important to you to be together as a family at the funeral, and your understanding of your individual children's needs. The decision should be yours alone. Your children are not in a position to understand what they are choosing or what is best for them in the long run. With proper support, what you feel is right for your family should turn out to be right for your children.
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