One of the most challenging obligations of a parent is to prepare a child to attend a funeral. If the preliminary determination is made that a particular child is emotionally ready to attend a funeral, the next step is to properly engage the young person and prepare him or her for what to expect. Keep in mind that research studies reported in Psychology Today reveal that even very young children (as young as three years old) ultimately glean some of the same emotional and spiritual benefits of attending a funeral that is garnered by adults.
“Kids need to be kept in the loop. They need information and support and the opportunity to ask questions,” he explains. “How much children should know or can understand depends on their age. Toddlers don’t understand death as something permanent — that comes when kids are school age — but they do understand grief and upset and tears, which are disturbing and difficult for them,” according to Randy McKeeman, M.Ed., CCLS, who supervises the Child Life Program at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.
Honest, Age Appropriate Explanation
The key to properly preparing your child for a funeral is to provide an honest and age-appropriate explanation of what to expect. In this regard, you need to keep in mind that children under about the age of eight likely don’t understand the permanence of death. Thus, preparing a child this age for a funeral needs to keep that reality in mind.
Verbally walk your child through each major step of the funeral service, from the placement of the casket in the church (or other venues) to the order of the service, including the eulogy. Make it clear that a number of people at the service are likely to be emotional. Underscore that being emotional, even crying, during a funeral is perfectly acceptable.
If there will be an open casket, you need to make a decision as to whether or not your child is of age, and has attained a level of emotional maturity, that makes a viewing appropriate. When my own father passed away, he had a niece who had twins who were about six years old. I “warned” the children’s mother that the casket would be open at the start of the service. She had properly prepared her kids for what to expect. The moment when they paid their respects to my father was a beautiful moment in the farewell and funeral for my father.
Age Appropriate Activities During or Associated With Funeral or Memorial Service
Another step that you can take to prepare your child for a funeral, and to make the service more understandable and meaningful to a young person, is to include some type of age-appropriate activity during or associated with the funeral. Examples of meaningful activities that can draw a child into the event in a meaningful and healthy manner include:
- Release of balloons (perhaps with attached messages)
- Blowing bubbles (blowing away difficult feelings)
- Lighting candles (for an older child)
- Incense (also for an older child, let child select scent to symbolize feelings)
In addition to making a funeral more meaningful for a child in a tangible way, these types of activities give you something to discuss with a child before the service. In discussing a funeral with a child, these activities illustrate a tangible (and appropriate) role a young person can play in the service.
Be Available for Questions
Your child may not take the opportunity to ask questions during or immediately after you have a conversation explaining what to expect at a funeral. If you open the door to questions at that time, anticipate a child to reply that he or she doesn’t have any. That very well may be true – at the moment. Keep in mind that responding to questions is the most important element of preparing your child for a funeral.
You need to ensure that you are available later to respond to questions that your child sincerely harbors. Moreover, you need to appreciate that your child may raise these questions at what can seem like a bit of an inopportune time. For example, don’t be surprised if your child starts asking questions in the car on the way to the service, or even inside the church or other venues where the service will be held.
These questions are likely to be both requests for information and clarification, but also a means by which a child seeks reassurance from you. As a parent, you are not out of line to whisper information and words of love encouragement even in the midst of a funeral.
Let one of the most poignant moments of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy be your guide when it comes to reassuring and explaining things to your child when a memorial service is in progress. First Lady Jackie Kennedy was filmed and photographed leaning own to her 3-year old son, explaining to him that he should salute the casket of his father as it was carried by him. If the wife of a slain President can explain funeral events to her child in front of the world, we call can among our family and friends.