Should Kids Attend Funerals?
Parenting is a “should” minefield. Full of ideas of what we should be doing with and for and to our children, and full of questions about how we should handle emotions, behaviors, events and circumstances. Thank goodness we have Google at our disposal 24-hours a day, with endless answers to every real or imagined question, for every should.
Take, for example, “Should I take my children to a funeral?” Seems straightforward enough, but on Google you will find answers like “absolutely not,” to “of course,” and every shade in between. Only you know whether your child’s capacity and the circumstantial demands of the service make your child’s attendance necessary and appropriate. But whether they stay or go, when a beloved pet or family member dies, kids need a ceremony.
Funerals are but one of many ceremonies our society has created to honor life’s passages. We don’t think twice about including our children in other important ceremonies, from birthdays to weddings to anniversaries. In many such celebratory events we even give children an important and central role to play. Why not funerals?
What are we protecting them- or ourselves- from?
When I Googled, “children at funerals,” most of the results were concerned not with children and their needs, but with adults’ needs. The articles espousing benefits of children attending funerals were largely adult-focused, detailing why children at the funeral is good for the adult mourners: a welcome distraction, hope for the future. Those encouraging children to stay home were preoccupied with concerns that the children would misbehave or fail to be appropriately somber, upsetting the other mourners.
If we turn our focus to children and their needs, fear seems to be the driving force behind the decision to leave them out of the ceremony: fear that children would find it confusing, or worse, upsetting. Fear that the children will become alarmed upon witnessing the emotional shattering of the adults that they rely on for support and guidance. But the most compelling arguments were made by adults who missed important funerals as children because adults in their lives thought it was inappropriate, unnecessary, or too upsetting to bring them along. Many of these accounts explored the regret and disappointment the now-grown children had about missing the opportunity for closure, mourning, or a formal goodbye. They needed the ceremony.
Child-focused Reasons to Include Children at Funerals
Funerals and memorial services can be helpful and important for children, as they:
- Scaffold a child’s learning about the circle of life
- Celebrate life’s purpose and meaning
- Give children practice with mourning
- Provide opportunity to experience the love, support, and cohesion of families
- Create structure around death, helping children feel emotionally contained
Tips for Including Children in Funerals:
- Give them a roadmap ahead of time. Tell them what they can expect about the process of the funeral: how long it will last, where it will take place, who they will sit with, people or things they might see there. This helps the child feel less afraid or uncertain.
- Give them a concrete way to contribute. The funeral does not need to be a strictly passive process—give your child a way to actively participate by placing a flower, lighting a candle, or making a card.
- Arm them with distractions. Funerals can be overwhelming and boring for children. Prepare a “hush” bag of activities and snacks that can keep them quietly occupied- make sure to unwrap crinkly bags and wrappings at home before you go.
- Protect them from fawning sentimentality. Aunt Bertha’s sobbing, hugs and kisses make an already sensitive experience overwhelming for a child. Steer your child clear of mourners who may be out of touch with appropriate boundaries and don’t be afraid to signal that your child’s personal space needs to be respected. Model an appropriate greeting or interaction with your child by encouraging hand shakes.
- Make a plan for what happens after the ceremony. If your children are old enough, have them participate in the after-funeral plan. You can consider cooking a family meal together, planting a seed, or creating a craft. This helps put a punctuation mark on the end of the funeral.
If you are still not convinced that your child should attend the funeral, I encourage you to find a way to help your children hold their own age-appropriate, child-centered (and maybe even child-driven) ceremony. Read on to PART THREE for suggestions on how to do just that.
Have you ever brought your children to a funeral? How did it go? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.