“Should kids go to funerals?” It’s a question many parents ask their friends, or post online looking for advice about. It’s one that’s often met with questions by way of reply.
“How do you think they’d cope?”
“Have you had a conversation with them about it?”
“How do they feel about being asked to attend?”
“How do you think they would they feel if they are not invited?”
So how old is old enough for a child to attend a funeral? When it comes to kids at funerals, the philosophy of renowned grief counselor Dr Alan Wolfelt, who has worked with bereaved children teenagers and families for more than three decades, is oft-quoted: “If they are old enough to love, then they are old enough to grieve.”
“Children need to learn that special, loved people do die – but also that there will always be somebody to take care of them,” says mental healthcare nurse Marty Tousley, who has focused her Florida practice on issues of grief, loss and transition for more than 40 years. She advises that children need plenty of information they can be lovingly guided through, so they are prepared for what will happen at the funeral.
Yet too often, kids feel like the forgotten mourners, says charitable foundation The Dougy Center, the national center for grieving children and their families.
“Parents may not be aware that one of the most helpful things they can do for their children during this time is to give them choices,” it says, adding: “Children appreciate having choices as much as adults do.”
Try to put yourself in their shoes. It’s important for adults to remember that kids’ sensibilities and levels of acceptance or uncertainty can be entirely different to our own.
Children can mimic adult behavior, seeing it as an example of how to act. But if we don’t allow our own anxieties to influence the conversation, children can be pretty matter-of-fact about figuring things out for themselves.
If attending a funeral is something they decide that they are not ready for, then that’s okay. A child should never be pressured to attend a funeral or visitation against their wishes, unless they are fully aware and accepting of what to expect.
Make time for a conversation with them about the who, where, what, when and whys of the funeral and what they can expect to happen on the day. When you are talking to a child about attending a funeral, they may also have many questions about death and what happens to a person when they die. There are many wonderful age-appropriate children’s books about grief to help you have these conversations.
Among the things to talk about, is what it means when someone dies. Experts agree that when explaining death to a child, it’s important to be mindful, but frank – and avoid euphemistic phrases like “gone to sleep”, which could put the fear-factor into daily routines such as bedtime.
You can explain why a funeral happens and how it is a chance for people to say goodbye. It may come as a surprise to see grown-ups crying. People might smile, too, about things that are said about the person who died. Some people call funerals ‘a celebration of life’: What special things will your child remember about the person whose funeral it is?
Whether or not a child should attend a funeral may also depend on the relationship they had with the person who died. At the funeral of a close family member, it may be appropriate for your child to be involved in some special way, from drawing a picture or writing a poem for the Order of Service, to lighting a candle, singing a funeral hymn or song, or reading a lesson.
Kate Atwood, who was aged 12 when she lost her mom to cancer, is behind Atlanta-based non-profit Kate’s Club which provides bereavement support and grief camps for children between the ages of 5 and 18 who have lost a parent, sibling or primary caregiver.
She describes a funeral or memorial service of a loved one as something that may be a part of a child’s memories for the rest of their lives.
“Caring and supportive adults can assist a child during this experience so that children feel cared for and not forgotten in the midst of adults’ grief,” she says.
Should kids go to all funerals? If the person who has died was not a close family member, it is considerate to ask whoever is arranging the funeral if they’d be okay with children at the funeral. This is a time for the bereaved to remember their loved one the way that they wish, so try not to take offense if the invitation doesn’t extend to your children’s attendance at the funeral.
You may have told your kids that during a funeral, we are mostly quiet and sit very still, because some people will be feeling very sad. It’s sensible to come prepared with books, ‘fidget’ toys and other quiet distractions though – time passes a lot slower when you are a child, especially during solemn occasions.
You’ll also find many funeral homes provide supervised rooms for kids at funerals where they can be entertained. Don’t feel like your child has to stick it out through the entire funeral ceremony, if it all gets too much.