After a death of a loved one, adults are often faced with the decision of whether to include children in death rituals such as visitation, funerals or memorial services. As a general guideline, the most helpful thing we as adults can do for our children is to let them participate as fully and completely in the grieving process as possible. To “protect” a child by keeping them from attending the wake, funeral and burial (or equivalent) only closes them off from the process of grieving and healing.
The funeral ritual not only allows us to embrace and honor the life that was lived but provides us an opportunity to support each other as we go forward. By joining family members in this ritual, children are given a chance to receive grief support from others and the opportunity to say goodbye in their own way. The funeral and the time around it serve as an event everyone will refer to later as the point at which life became different.
Encourage, but don’t force:
Children should be encouraged to take part in funeral services but never forced to attend. When guided and informed of the process, most children want to attend. Children are not born with a fear of death; rather, it is often our reactions that give them this fear.
Children feel like their feelings matter when they are allowed to take part in the rituals. Some children have taken part in the services by sharing a favorite memory, reading a special poem, lighting a candle or placing a momento or photo in the casket.
Even if children do not wish to participate, you may suggest writing a note, coloring a picture or including a photograph with the deceased as a way of making a connection or saying something they may wish they had said or done before the person died. Allowing children to contribute helps them express their grief in a positive way.
Unless a child has already attended a funeral, most don’t know what to expect. It is helpful to give as many specifics regarding what will happen before, during and after the ceremony, as the child is interested in hearing. Allow the child’s questions to be your guide.
It might be helpful to describe how the room will look and who will be there. If the body will be viewed, let the child know this and explain the casket and what the body will look like. It is helpful to reassure children that death means the body is no longer working and thus can’t feel any pain.
It may also be helpful to prepare children for the wide variety of emotions people may be expressing at the services. Some may be crying and others may be laughing as they share special stories and memories. The wide variety of expressions of grief are all a normal part of the grieving process.
Although funerals are a time of great sadness, children need to know that the ritual is also a time to honor the person who died and a time for people to come together to comfort and support each other. It is also a time to say goodbye and to acknowledge that the person that we loved cannot come back. This might be an opportunity to explain what spiritual significance the ritual has for you and your family.
Children need a time to say goodbye. They need loving adults around them to allow them to cry, to be angry and especially to remember. Grieving children especially need to know that they are not alone.
How children grieve a death and participate in the rituals of their culture determines how they will face future losses and sorrows. Allow children to do as much as they are comfortable doing. You may be surprised how well a child may cope given support and understanding and how much their presence may actually help grieving adults.
Talking with Children about Death
Answer simply and truthfully.
Children will probably know in some way when they are not being told the truth. What they imagine to fill in the details is often worse than the reality.
Listen to questions closely.
As adults we often project our own anxieties onto our children’s questions. When a four year old asks, “Where is Daddy?” they may only want to know the whereabouts of the body and how it got there. They may not be asking the metaphysical question about an afterlife. Ask follow up questions to make sure you know what they are asking and why they are asking it. In other words what made them ask the question.
Only answer what has been asked.
Answer simply and truthfully, but don’t offer more than is needed. If the child wants more they will ask more questions. When children ask a question about feelings, focus on emotional answers and support. When their questions are factual, focus on informative answers.
Pay attention to their body language.
If they seem antsy, it may mean it is time to end the conversation. They will return to it if they need more as long as they know it is an allowed topic for conversation.
Answer these questions in an open atmosphere.
Use familiar expressions of comfort such as touches, hugs, smiles, and a loving tone of voice. Children need to know that what you’re saying or describing, no matter how difficult , is okay to talk about. Adults do not need to have all the answers but children do need to know that they will listened to.
Balance your own emotions.
For children to be able to hear the whole message, a warm and open approach is helpful. If you’re too emotional, they can’t understand the words. On the other hand, if you show no emotion, the words may seem too harsh.
Balance your own needs/abilities with what the children need.
It’s okay to say “I can’t talk about this right now” when you feel overwhelmed by the situation or need time to put your own thoughts together about how you want to explain things to your child. Children have a knack for asking questions at those moments when you least expect it. Better to postpone the conversation than to give an answer you may regret later. But it is critical to make sure that you do return to the conversation. It is important to remember that within a family each person may be in a different place and express themselves in a different way.
Possible questions :
What does dead mean?
In simple terms explain the physical process of death. The heart doesn’t beat, the lungs don’t breath, the persons doesn’t have to eat or go to the bathroom. Their body stops working completely. They don’t feel any pain.
Did I make it happen ?
This is a question which needs to be answered directly and clearly. Children will sometimes assume that their wish or words or thoughts caused this bad thing to happen (magical thinking). We need to unburden them of this concern, while acknowledging that we have heard it. Try not to dismiss the question. Avoid saying things like “don’t be silly” or “that’s crazy”. Rather “ I understand why you might think that but you absolutely did nothing to make this happen.”
What happened to the body?
Be as simple and truthful as possible. Use the correct terminology including casket, funeral, cemetery, cremation, burial, ashes.