What to Say to a Child Before a Funeral

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You’ve lost a loved one and the funeral is just days away. What’s the best way to prepare your children for this ritual? Should you even be bringing a child to a funeral in the first place?

It depends on many factors: your child’s age and maturity, how close the person was to your child, and what the event will entail, says Laurie Zelinger, a child psychologist in Cedarhurst, New York. “You’ll want to know how many speakers there will be at the memorial service, will it be an open or a closed casket and how long the service will be,” she says. “As a parent, consider what, if any, previous experience your child has had with death. Has he or she experienced the death of a relative (or a pet) already or has your child read a story about death in a book? Then, armed with that info, you can individualize your approach.”

Here, our age-based guide to talking to your kids about what to expect at a funeral.

Preschoolers: Find ways for them to say goodbye

While it depends on who has died—if it was a grandparent your child saw often versus a distant relative your child maybe met once—at this age, a funeral should be seen as an opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one, says Jessica Tappana, a licensed clinical social worker in Columbia, Missouri, who specializes in grief. “But, again, you want to rely on how much you know your child’s personality and developmental level,” she says. “There is no magic age for when you take a child to a funeral and the best person to make that decision is you.”

To help you make that decision, find out more about the funeral atmosphere. For example, will this be a long traditional church service or an informal graveside event? Keep in mind that most preschoolers won’t be able to sit through two hours of speeches.

If you choose to take your child, talk to them ahead of time in order to help them understand what to expect. “You want to make sure they aren’t hoping to see their loved one at the event,” Tappana adds. “You’ll also want to explain burial or cremation in a very, very basic way. When my great aunt was cremated, my three-year-old wanted to know how she fit in the small urn during her visitation. Several people laughed with us as we quietly explained that it was just her ashes in the actual urn.”

You should use very clear language, especially if there will be an open casket at the funeral. “A popular notion is to tell the child that the deceased is ‘sleeping’ especially since that is how a deceased person looks in the casket,” says Jenmarie Eadie, a licensed clinical social worker in Upland, California. “But this can be terrifying to a child because he or she may then be afraid to fall asleep.” In addition, watch your words. “Always use words like ‘dead’ and ‘died,’” Eadie adds. “Words commonly used in the course of a child’s day like ‘gone’ or ‘passed’ will be confusing.”

If you ultimately decide to NOT take your child to the funeral, you can find other ways for him or her to say goodbye.  “Consider making a book of memories, writing the loved one a letter, attending a visitation or finding other opportunities where your child can honor his or her relationship with the deceased,” Tappana says.

Age 5 to 9: Prep them for a tough day

Elementary age kids are old enough to share an opinion as to whether or not they want to attend a funeral, but they generally should attend, particularly if someone close to them like a beloved grandparent has died, says Tappana. But before your child arrives at a funeral, especially if this is a first experience, always prep them beforehand. “Explain what will be expected of your children behavior-wise, what the service will entail, other family members and friends who will be at the funeral and then monitor their reactions,” says Tappana. “If they have questions, answer each and every one.” It’s also smart to prepare your kids for how the adults may behave as well. “Young children need to know that the sanctuary is a quiet place but they will hear sniffling and nose blowing,” Zelinger says. “They should also be prepared to see their parents crying but be assured that they will feel better at some point.”

Keep in mind that 5-9 is still an age where children can have a lot of trepidation surrounding a funeral, Zelinger says. “Elementary-school age children often are afraid that the deceased person will pop up and come alive again,” she says. Use your judgment, too, when it comes to viewing an open casket as some kids can find that quite terrifying.

While you will probably want to spare younger grade school kids details about the cause of a person’s death, you should be upfront with older kids. That said, you don’t want to go into gory details (“grandpa died of cancer” not “grandpa had colon cancer that spread throughout his body”). But keep in mind that discussing illness and death may make your child worry that other people he or she loves will die too. “Reassure your kids that the health of others in the family is still good,” Zelinger says.

Tweens and teens: Respect their deeper knowledge

Older kids are more aware of what death means and are quite likely to experience intense feelings of sadness over a lost loved one, especially the loss of a loving grandparent or family friend. These can be complex feelings that are often hard for them to process. It’s key to help tweens and teens understand that there’s no proper way to feel, Zelinger says. While some people may cry, others won’t and helping them understand the range of emotions that is normal to feel after you experience a death is very important.

While tweens and teens are more likely to be okay attending a funeral, if you have a teenager who is hesitant, ask why. “Listen to his or her emotions and normalize them,” Tappana says. “Explain that other people are likely thinking and feeling the same thing. It’s also important to reiterate the purpose of the funeral, that it’s a chance to say goodbye, share memories and to find closure.” 

Do you best to help your teen by giving them advance notice of what to expect in terms of proper behavior and attire for a funeral. By the time kids are in high school, they can be called upon to participate in the service, perhaps by giving a eulogy or simply helping to prepare a meal for the mourners.  As Zelinger notes, “This may provide comfort to them in the process, too.”

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