Funerals can be an important part of the grieving process. They are a time to symbolically say goodbye and get on the path of accepting that a loved one is no longer here. When it comes to kids attending funerals, there’s no right or wrong thing to do. Instead, it’s very context-dependent. You need to ask yourself some questions: Is your child anxious, or easily distracted? Does she tend to dwell on things, or do they roll off her back? Is it going to be an open or closed casket? How long will the ceremony be? Does she even want to go? You should also consider how emotional people are going to be at the funeral. As a rule of thumb, we don’t want kids to be exposed to really scary, excessive displays of emotion. And when they are, we should explain that, even if the adults around them seem upset, they are still okay, safe, and will feel better again soon. Even more reassurance should be given if it is the child’s primary caregiver who is very upset.
PREPARING YOUTH FOR FUNERAL ATTENDANCE
When your child makes the decision to attend a funeral, help prepare him or her for the event by explaining what he or she will see and feel, and what others may be doing. Even the smallest details shared in advance will help your child feel more comfortable with his or her decision.
WHEN YOUTH CHOOSE NOTTO ATTEND A FUNERAL
If your child chooses not to attend a funeral, let him or her know what will be happening instead. Will your child stay with a friend or family member? Will there be a babysitter? Will an overnight stay be involved?
EXPLAIN WHO AND WHAT YOUTH MIGHT SEE
Will your child see relatives and friends, or know many people? Will other children be in attendance? Show photographs to remind him or her of familiar faces, if possible. As appropriate, show photographs of items and places your child might see. Consider a visit to the funeral home, cemetery or other venue prior to the funeral.
TALK ABOUT EMOTIONS AND HOW PEOPLE MIGHT BE FEELING
Talk about sadness and grief to help prepare your child for how he or she might feel during the funeral. Explain that people maybe mourning, which is showing an outward expression of grief through an emotion such as crying, while others may be laughing and smiling as they share favorite memories. Let your child know that people grieve differently, and that it is completely normal for emotions to change throughout the day.
POINT OUT THE PERSONAL TOUCHES
Help your child recall memories that might help him or her recognize any personal touches that honor your loved one. For example, will attendees be encouraged to wear your loved one's favorite color? Will mementos or beloved possessions be on display? Will the deceased be wearing a familiar article of clothing?
EXPLAIN THE ORDER OF THE DAY
Let your child know what to expect, and where the event or events will be held. ls there a visitation at the funeral home, a funeral service at a church, a cemetery interment? Will a meal follow? ls the funeral taking place at someone's home or at another venue?
Explain that during a visitation, people may be waiting in a receiving line to greet your family (or the loved one's family) or standing/sitting and talking. Is the visitation prior to the ceremony? The day before?
Discuss the ceremony location, and who and what will be involved. Is the location a familiar place of worship? Who is the officiant or celebrant? Are there pallbearers, and what do they do? Will there be music? Readings? Sitting or standing?
Will there be a procession to the cemetery? Who will be going? Will your child see a hearse? Will you be scattering your loved one's cremated remains?
GIVE YOUTH CHOICES AND CONTROL
Make certain your child feels empowered throughout the day, and support his or her decisions. Assure your child that, at any point, he or she can change his or her mind about attending and participating in the funeral.
Practice roles as necessary until your child feels comfortable, and don't force a hug, handshake or
participation. Avoid phrases such as, "Grandma would have wanted you to read a poem;' or "You'll hurt Uncle John's feelings if you don't say hello to everyone'.' Reassure your child that opting out is perfectly okay; have a plan in place to cover a participatory role.
Consider assigning a known and trusted "point person" who will not mind leaving the funeral with your child, if it becomes necessary. Let your child help select this caregiver in advance of the funeral, if appropriate. Be sure to let your child know in advance what he or she can expect to see, and when. If your loved one's body is present, give your child control over how close he or she would like to get to the deceased. Let your child decide how long to stay in the room, and whether he or she would like to view or touch your loved one.
Continue to allow your child to make decisions after the funeral. Would he or she like to choose a favorite dish or restaurant for dinner? Did your loved one have a cherished possession that your child may keep as a memento? Is a sleepover with friends or family an option?
NORMALIZE THE EXPERIENCE
Your child will be looking to you for support and guidance, and will likely notice if you are uncomfortable in your grief or during the funeral. Make sure your body language and tone mirror your words of assurance and normalcy. Remind your child that crying is okay for both children and adults. Say, "It's okay to be nervous or sad or scared today. We're going to feel a lot of different emotions. I'm glad we're here together to say our special goodbyes. It's very important, and it will help us feel much better'.
Encourage your child to ask questions, and share what's on his or her mind. It will not be uncommon for your child to ask the same questions again and again. Some questions may be direct and pointed, and it's okay to not be able (or ready) to answer them. Consider saying, ''I'm glad you asked that question. I don't know the answer either. Let's find someone who might be able to answer it for us;' or "It's hard for me to answer that right now. Can we please talk about that at a different time soon?"
PREPARING YOUTH FOR VIEWING LOVED ONES
Children often want to be included in what others around them are seeing. You may be uncomfortable with the idea of your child viewing the deceased, but it's important to remember that children have big imaginations, and that fantasies can be far scarier than the actual experience. Viewing your loved one may help your child understand that death is a natural part of life, and not something to be feared. It may also help him or her understand the reality of death, and that your loved one will not be coming back. Offer clear and honest information to help your child make the decision whether to view the deceased; reassure your child that whatever he or she decides is okay.
If your child chooses to view your loved one, accompany him or her to the casket. Your funeral service professional can be on hand to answer any questions, and help prepare you and your child for what you will see when you approach the casket. Consider scheduling a private viewing prior to the visitation
or service. Note the casket's color, location and surrounding items (flowers, memorial table, kneeler, etc.).
Assure your child early and often that your loved one can no longer feel cold, hurt or fear. Explain that the deceased will be lying in a casket with hands folded and eyes closed. Acknowledge that it might look like your loved one is sleeping, but clarify that his or her body has stopped working, and will not start working again. Prepare your child to see that your loved one may look different from when he or she was alive. For example, there may be visible marks, scars or swelling if he or she died from illness or injury. Funeral service professionals often use cosmetics for a more natural look, and to create a healing final impression of your loved one.
Describe what your loved one will be wearing. Is it a familiar outfit or a favorite color? If your loved one will only be seen from the waist up, your child may be curious about things like whether he or she is wearing shoes. Let your child know that touching your loved one is okay, and that the deceased's body will feel cool to the touch. If asked, "Where can I touch?" suggest a gentle stroke of your loved one's hair or arm; model the action as necessary.
Even though you may not be able to see your loved one, remind your child that the deceased can no longer feel cold, hurt or fear. Explain that your loved one is lying in the casket, fully dressed, with hands folded and eyes closed. Encourage your child to ask questions.
WHEN YOUR LOVED ONE'S BODY IS NOT PRESENT
It is just as important to explain what your child will see when your loved one's body isn't present. Explain that there might be a portrait, an urn or a memorial table, and that everyone is gathered to say their special goodbyes.