If there is ever tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart I’ll always be with you. –Winnie the Pooh
Funerals, also known as celebrations of life or memorial services, are arguably the most practiced of all ceremonies in the world. It’s widely accepted that funerals serve many purposes including providing a valuable formalized opportunity for respectfully saying goodbye to a loved one while offering family, friends and members of the larger community each others' support.
Because of its great significance and value, most experts agree that even young children, with proper preparation, can fully participate in mourning rituals including viewing the body, last goodbyes, funeral and burial services. Of course, given their developmental stage and lack of prior life experience, children must be prepared. Rememberingalife.com has devoted an entire section on special considerations when including children in memorial services. (You can read all about this in the Youth & Funerals section of the website.)
A child-led and planned memorial service differs greatly from a general memorial service. It is a separate ceremony specifically intended to be a highly supportive grief activity for bereaved children. Taking place sometime following the general memorial service, a child-led and planned memorial service recognizes the death of a parent or significant adult as a highly stressful event for the child. A child-led and planned memorial service has many critical functions and for this reason arguably could be considered the ultimate child’s grief activity.
Benefits of a child-led and planned memorial service:
- Allows bereaved children to regain some control of their life by taking a leadership role.
- Opportunity for the child to receive intentional and targeted peer support.
- Allows children to communicate feelings at their own developmental level and personal style.
Consider the true story of eight-year-old Mani who led and planned a special service for dad:
Mani’s Special Memorial Service for Dad
When Nancy Hooyman asked her eight year old daughter Mani if she would like to organize her own memorial service for dad, Mani said she would have to talk to her friends to see what they think. After getting their support, Mani and her family’s rabbi planned the entire service. The service had many parts, including time for Mani to stand at the front of the chapel sharing favorite memories and pictures with dad, singing songs as a group, including "Puff the Magic Dragon," a candlelight circle and then finishing up with a delicious cake. Several years later, Nancy and Mani continue to reflect on the children's service as a very powerful and positive experience not only for Mani but for her friends and their parents.
By being able to make these choices, Mani gained some control over her life even though in many ways it had been shattered. It was a very powerful and positive experience not only for Mani but her friends and their parents. - Dr. Nancy Hooyman
While there are no set rules, careful reflection should take place prior to considering a child-led and planned memorial service. The child’s age, personality, relationship to the deceased and peer group are all variables in deciding this approach. Each child grieves differently—just like adults —- and best practice is to keep an open mind. Try to let go of expectations for a child to react in any particular way or with certain emotions while encouraging them to express their feelings. Talk about how, by planning their own special ceremony, they will be able to “do” something to express their own feelings of love and loss. A child-led and planned memorial service will also serve the important purpose of letting their friends know what the loved one meant to them and how their lives have changed. It's a supported platform to express what can be awkward or otherwise difficult to work into peer conversations.
Suggested Components of a Child Led & Planned Memorial Service
- The bereaved child or children decide on what activities they would like to include and in what order with planning help from a trusted adult.
- Allow the child(ren) to decide who they would like to invite.
- Music including instruments, songs to sing together, solo or pre-recorded, are selected by the child(ren).
- Child-chosen program design, food choices, special photos, toys, mementos and decorations.
- Child-friendly seating, clothing and environment.
- Parents of children and other adults are “second tier” guests, available but not the focus.
- Inclusion of comforting prayers, quotes, sayings, etc. as chosen by child.
- The children address the group, sharing memories and feelings about the deceased.
In the weeks, months, years and lifetimes following all services and ceremonies, grieving endures for affected persons with highly variable intensity. In the case of children, optimal adult support means being available to the child on a regular basis as a safe person to process difficult memories and emotions. Ways to show availability include verbally checking in with them in a routine but non-pressured way, sharing your own memories of the deceased and otherwise demonstrating that you care about their feelings through remembering their loss during significant dates and events.
Whether or not you choose a child-led and planned memorial service, it’s important to remember that children pick up on our grief too, even if you think you’re not showing it. Effectively supporting children in grief necessitates paying close attention to your own self-care. Practicing self-care and then openly talking to children about what specific things you are doing for self-care are two excellent ways to model effective grief coping skills.
Story published with permission from Dr. Nancy Hooyman as featured in Grief Reimagined: 50 Creative Strategies to Build Resilience by Catherine Tyink & Christine Kortbein. What are your favorite ways to offer grief support to children? Your comments and suggestions are most welcome.