Should Children Attend Funerals?
The first funeral I remember attending was for my grandmother when I was eight years old. I really didn’t understand much about funerals, especially in second grade. I remember being at the funeral home and looking at my grandmother’s memorial brochure and marveling at how close to her birthday she had died.
When I was 12, my grandfather died and I remember a lot of people standing around the room talking, with my grandfather in the casket at the front. We went to the visitation, the funeral, and then to the cemetery. I’m not sure how going to a funeral at a young age affected me, but they are events I clearly remember decades later.
Funerals can be important family rituals. When are they done well and reflect the life of the person who has died, they can be part of the healing process. Funerals acknowledge grief over losing a loved one, and they do so as part of a community of friends and family.
How do you know if your child is ready to attend a funeral?
So how do you know if a child is ready? It depends on the child’s age and maturity level—are they able to act appropriately at other family events, for instance? If this is the case, ask them whether they want to attend, says Kenneth J. Doka Ph.D. And then explain to them what will happen during the service all the way from who will be there to the open casket. It’s important to give your child simple and honest explanations, and then ask what he understands, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Take time to clear up any misinterpretations.
Children’s understanding varies by age
When someone we have a connection to dies, we grieve, regardless of age. Even infants can understand the absence of a caregiver, according to the website healgrief.org. Below is a summary of how each age group understands what death means.
Preschoolers: Understanding that the deceased is not coming back is a big step for a child attending a funeral. Pre-schoolers might struggle with this concept since they may think that death is temporary, believing death is reversible—reinforced by what they see in cartoons where the characters die and come back to life, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP).
Children ages 4-7 also view death as temporary but also might believe the death is their fault, according to Vitas Health Care. In this age range, a child believes everything revolves around them, and they may have been angry and said something to the person who died—and then think they caused it. It’s important to reassure them that’s not the case. “Sometimes children have this really uncanny way of assigning blame to themselves for things that have nothing to do with them,” says board-certified licensed professional counselor Tammy Lewis Wilborn in the HuffPost on “How to Talk to Your Kids About Death and Dying.”
School-aged children 7-12 begin to view death as permanent and irreversible and associate death with a physical being, such as a ghost. They tend to believe that death can be avoided if you try hard enough. Common reactions to death in school-aged children may include difficulty concentrating in school, problems sleeping, stomachaches and headaches, according to HealthyChildren.org. They are very curious and may ask candid questions about death, cremation, or burial.
Teens understand death on the same level as adults. They may resist talking about their feelings, which can lead to acting out. Teens may feel guilt over being alive or anger over their lack of control, according to HealthyChildren.org. The best thing you can do is encourage them to express their grief in healthy ways and let them know that asking for help is not a weakness, but a strength.
Key points to consider
Here are some key points to keep in mind when you’re having a conversation about the death of a loved one with your child. Remember it’s important to talk to them so they understand what’s happened, and so you can ask them questions about how they feel, and what they need.
Don’t lie. “Tell them the ‘facts’ about the death,” says clinical psychologist John Mayer. “This is an opportune time to teach them about death,” he continues. “Don’t shy away from it.”
Words like “death,” “died” or “dying” may sound harsh, but this is still developmentally appropriate language, notes Wilborn. “It’s important for children to have the language to understand the permanence of death,” she continues.
That said, your conversation with your child should be based on their developmental age and their understanding of what happens when someone dies. They don’t need all the information about how someone died, “but they need enough age-appropriate details to understand that a person has died and isn’t coming back,” says Wilborn.
Don’t force them to go to the funeral or burial. If they choose to go, let them decide whether they want to view the open casket, for instance.