Sharing the experience with children helps them better understand the concepts of death, memorialization and ritual, but it is crucial to understand and support young people, on their unique levels, as they go through the experience. Your child’s reaction to death and the funeral experience will vary depending on age, the nature of the relationship with the deceased, and his or her maturity level and ability to manage complex emotions.
Young children may be confused about where the deceased person has gone, and when he or she is coming back. Teens may be concerned about their ability to control their emotions, or how to interact with loved ones of the deceased who are upset. Others may worry because they simply do not know what to expect, or what to do, during a funeral or visitation.
Sooner is often better when telling your child about the death of a loved one. Children will likely remember how they were told, so take into account your intimate knowledge of your child’s demeanor as you consider how and when to begin the conversation. For example, would starting the conversation in the daytime, in a familiar place, give your child the appropriate time and space to process the information, as opposed to hearing the news at bedtime?
Adult role modeling helps children navigate their own way forward. Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, the more open and honest you are about these natural life events, the more normalized and less scary these experiences become.
Direct, open and honest conversations will help your child make informed choices, and prepare him or her for the funeral service itself. Using simple, clear and concrete language is key when discussing terms your child may find confusing or scary.
Keep explanations honest and clear, and avoid euphemisms, such as "lost," "asleep" or "passed away", which may confuse children.
Simply explain that when someone dies, their body has stopped working, and will not start working again. Clarify that a person who has died can no longer breathe, think or talk, nor feel pain, fear, cold, etc.
A funeral (sometimes referred to as a memorial, or celebration of life) is a ritual that helps families and friends express their deepest thoughts and feelings about the person who died.
Explain that you will be having a funeral just for your loved one, and that everyone will be together to share memories, express how much the person was loved and to say a very special goodbye.
As appropriate, incorporate your family traditions, religious/spiritual customs and cultural beliefs into your discussion. Consider addressing any of your loved one’s traditions, beliefs and customs that might be new, different or unfamiliar to your child.
Explain that, at the end of the funeral, the casket will be placed in a special car, called a hearse, and taken to the cemetery. There will be a very deep hole called a grave. The casket will be lowered into the grave and covered with earth.
Eventually, grass will grow on top of it, and soon a grave marker will be put there to mark the place, so that people can remember where the casket was put into the ground.
Let your child know that he or she will be able to visit the cemetery to think about and remember your loved one.
Tell your child that cremation doesn’t hurt because a person who has died can’t feel pain. Use simple, clear and honest language, avoiding words like “fire” or “burn.”
Explain that the person’s body is placed in a special box, and then taken to a place called a crematory. Inside the crematory, it gets very, very hot, which changes the person’s body into particles like tan and gray sand, called cremated remains.
The cremated remains are then placed in a special container, often called an urn. Discuss that your family (or the family of the deceased) might decide to keep the urn in a meaningful place, bury the cremated remains in a cemetery, or scatter them outdoors at a place that was important to your loved one or the family.