When a loved one dies, knowing how to discuss memorial plans with children in the family can be a significant challenge. Experts have published a world of books and articles on the topic, and the internet is filled with videos offering a wide variety of tips. And the startling fact about all of this advice is that very little of it is conflicting. In fact, most of it is in keeping with common sense; an expert’s opinion is, in the end, not entirely necessary, as it turns out.
The trouble with the advice of experts is that it is difficult and often very uncomfortable. It goes against our nature to protect a child from the painful difficult aspects of a life. So, with that in mind, we offer a brief summary of what experts generally say about discussing funerals with children. However, be warned dear reader, this advice, while wise, may not be easy to abide by.
A few common phrases that adults are often fond of using in their discussions about funerals with children turn out to be unhealthy according to many experts. That’s because they are dishonest. Their deception is well intended, mind you, but it is deception, nevertheless, and honesty is a much better policy when it comes to discussing funerals with children.
Do not, experts warn, try to describe death to children as a long episode of sleep. That’s not what it is, of course. (Though Shakespeare did famously call sleep “death’s cousin.”) And to call it that in the presence of the developing imagination of a child risks giving the child traumatic time with actual sleep. It would be easy for a child to lay away many nights of his or her childhood worried that, just like grandma, he or she might not ever wake up. Also, seeing someone who is merely asleep being buried in a 6 foot deep hole (or, worse, being burned into a pile of ashes) can be beyond traumatic for a young child.
Another common-but-dishonest thing that adults also tell children about death is this: “Grandma is still watching over you.”
Only God can claim eternal watch over a child, and the image of a potentially over bearing grandparent exercising omniscient authority over a young child’s life can be about as horrible a thought as there is.
Again, the dishonesty in these words is well-intended, of course (or maybe unintentional all together). But it can be harmful nevertheless. So experts uniformly recommend that adults save mythology for the stories of the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and simply not be afraid to be as honest as can be when it comes to discussing funerals with children, especially those who are young.
Allow Children to Behave Naturally
Funerals are not a time or place for harsh rebukes, experts warn. Except for major breaches of funeral etiquette (loud talking or wild squirming about during a eulogy, for example), children should be allowed to experience a funeral in whatever capacity comes naturally. (We note here that completely unruly behavior, such as running up or down the aisles during the service, should not be allowed in any circumstance. If a child is being particularly rambuncious, the best is to step outside for a few minutes to allow them to catch some fresh air. Maybe suggesting that the child try to sit still before re-entering the building may also be in order, but again, becoming overly upset with them is not the answer.) If a child desires to touch the deceased during an open casket viewing period, he or she should certainly be allowed. If the experience is unexpectedly discomforting, he or she should be comforted, and not scolded. If the events of a funeral bring about questions of death and dying, those inquiries should not be discouraged. Crying should also never be discouraged, and even laughing is okay, if that is their natural reaction. Forcing a child to be sad, or seem sad, can have adverse affects, especially if the child does not sincerely feel upset. It may cause them to feel as if something is wrong with them, which is not the case. We all react differently to grief, and for some (even adults), laughter is a natural response in stressful situations. Additionally, smiles, much to many people’s surprise, are actually healthy things to see during a funeral, regardless of the age of those smiling.
One bit of seemingly contradictory advice on this topic says the following: do not allow children to do things in the pew of a church during a funeral that might distract him or her from the ceremonies. Coloring or, worse, playing video games, should not be allowed, no matter how “natural” those may be for a child in the rest of his or her life. Rather, children should be encouraged to experience a funeral in all of its beauty and rigor. Escaping by means of an artificially induced game or other activity is, in fact, the last thing that an adult should allow a child to do.
Do Not Put Pressure On a Child
When talking about funerals to children, adults should remember to always be sensitive to the child’s emotional frailties. Pressuring a child to attend a funeral is a mistake. So adults should be very careful to catch on when a child is uncomfortable with the idea of attending. Always give him or her an easy option to back out – even at the last minute. Allowing a child to sit in a vehicle or some other safe place during a funeral service is much better than pressuring him to sit through a frightening experience of a funeral in which he or she is uncomfortable.
The same is true, especially, of viewing a body. No child should ever be forced to visit a body on display. Even if all adults who are accompanying a child should desire to spend a few moments before an open casket, a child should never be challenged for a desire to simply sit quietly at the back of a church while others pay their respects.
There Is No Age Limit On “Child”
Experts advise that all of the above applies to teenagers as much as it does to elementary school aged children. In fact, in many cases, teenagers are even more sensitive to the discomfort of funerals. And they will often express a deep desire to not even attend a funeral of, say, a beloved grand parent or even a sibling. This is okay, experts warn! Grief and other emotional consequences of a death in a family can have great affects on the still-developing mind of a teenager. So it is important for adults to simply exercise compassion and patience. No child, even a teenager who is on the very verge of adulthood, should ever be expected to do anything at a funeral that does not come entirely naturally.