I often get asked, "Is it difficult to be a funeral director?" Yes, it can be. But also, being a funeral director and serving families during their most difficult times is an honor and a privilege. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to care for others. Funerals are an important part of grieving, for both adults and children, and I take a special interest in meeting the needs of children. Funerals offer us a time to say our last good-byes and help start the realization that a loved one is no longer with us physically. Two questions I often get from parents are, "Should my child attend a funeral," and "How do I talk to my child about death and the events to come?"
When I was a child, I was not allowed to attend the funeral of a family member. My parents thought they were doing what was best for me by protecting me from the sadness. In reality, I remember feeling like I needed to be at the funeral. I wanted to be there. As parents, we try to protect our children from experiences that might hurt them. And although we feel like we are protecting them by keeping them away from a funeral, oftentimes that isn’t true. I believe I struggled more with the death than I would have if I had been allowed to attend. It has been my experience that this often happens for children who are kept from attending funerals, though that may not be true for every child or for all circumstances.
When it comes to allowing a child to attend a funeral, I always encourage parents to let them attend. I have found it is best to let the child lead. This simply means to have a conversation with your child and get a sense of what you feel they want and need. It’s okay to ask them directly if they want to attend. Children will oftentimes tell you a simple yes or no. I have found most children need and want to participate. Remember that each child is different. Use your best judgment on how much they can handle. They often can handle more than what we give them credit for.
Talking to children about death can be difficult, but with a few helpful tips, I hope you will feel more comfortable talking about death. Because children are usually very visual, I encourage showing them photos or children’s books about funerals. This often sparks wonderful questions.
1. Death is Natural
Death is a natural part of life. Unfortunately, it is a reality that we all will experience at some point, and it is okay to talk about it. When starting a conversation about death with a child, I often say, “Do you remember when you learned that plants, animals, and people live and die?” Many children have seen a plant die (or maybe even a pet) and they can start making the connection that people also die.
2. Reassure the Child
It is natural for children to ask or wonder if they will die too or if someone else in their family will also die. Reassure them that just because their loved one has died doesn’t mean that anyone else will die as well. Explain that it is okay to feel a variety of different emotions. It is common to feel sad, mad, frustrated, or scared. Also, let them know that you, as the adult, might be emotional at times as well. Reassure your child that you are here for them, and they can talk to you or ask for a hug anytime.
3. Be Real, but Simple
We discourage adults from masking the situation, such as saying, “Grandma is sleeping.” This kind of story can lead to other issues and fears around sleeping. Grandma is NOT sleeping, so it’s best to not tell your child that. I find it is best to be real and truthful but in a very simple way. It is okay to use the word died. It can feel like a scary or harsh word to say, but using the correct terminology is more beneficial than not. It is helpful to make statements such as, “Grandma’s final resting place will be at the cemetery. Her body will be buried there, it will be a place we can visit anytime.” If a viewing of the body will take place, explain the events that are coming so your child knows what to expect. Explain to them, “Grandma is not alive anymore. Her body might look a little different from what you remember. When we die, our bodies go through natural changes.” If cremation has taken place and there will not be a viewing, explain that Grandma was cremated and cremation is a process to change the body to cremated remains (or ashes). Keeping the conversation short and sweet can prevent overwhelming and confusing explanations. Children often respond well to short answers.
4. Be Patient
Be patient with your child. And at the same time, remember that it is just as important to be patient with yourself as well. Feelings can quickly change for your child and for yourself. Know that there is no “right way” to grieve, as we each must grieve in our individual way.
5. Talk about Your Loved One
The death of a loved one is a difficult time; I have found that it is helpful to talk about special memories and engage in positive activities to remind us of our loved one. In helping children deal with their emotions, I often tell parents to label the emotion and take an action. For instance, if the child has an emotion such as sadness, you might tell your child, “I see you are sad because you miss Grandma. Would you like to do something that reminds us of her?” The activity might be something simple like baking Grandma’s famous cookies, placing her favorite flowers at the cemetery, or simply drawing a picture. Entering into the conversation might provide an opportunity for healing, so try not to avoid it.
As hard and emotional as it is to talk about the death of a loved one, please know that answering a child’s questions can alleviate some of the anxiety of the unknown for them. It is a learning process for you and your child as you both learn how to live without your loved one. I hope you have found this helpful. Remember to connect with loving people in your community and consult skilled professionals to help you through difficult times.
Learn more about talking to children about death, loss and funerals in this interview with Lacie Brueckner and Katherine Pendergast.