When your child makes the decision to attend a funeral, help prepare him or her for the event by explaining what he or she will see and feel, and what others may be doing. Even the smallest details shared in advance will help your child feel more comfortable with his or her decision.
If your child chooses not to attend a funeral, let him or her know what will be happening instead. Will your child stay with a friend or family member? Will there be a babysitter? Will an overnight stay be involved?
Will your child see relatives and friends, or know many people? Will other children be in attendance? Show photographs to remind him or her of familiar faces, if possible.
As appropriate, show photographs of items and places your child might see. Consider a visit to the funeral home, cemetery or other venue prior to the funeral.
Talk about sadness and grief to help prepare your child for how he or she might feel during the funeral. Explain that people may be mourning, which is showing an outward expression of grief through an emotion such as crying, while others may be laughing and smiling as they share favorite memories.
Let your child know that people grieve differently, and that it is completely normal for emotions to change throughout the day.
Help your child recall memories that might help him or her recognize any personal touches that honor your loved one. For example, will attendees be encouraged to wear your loved one’s favorite color? Will mementos or beloved possessions be on display? Will the deceased be wearing a familiar article of clothing?
Let your child know what to expect, and where the event or events will be held. Is there a visitation at the funeral home, a funeral service at a church, a cemetery interment? Will a meal follow? Is the funeral taking place at someone’s home or at another venue?
Explain that during a visitation, people may be waiting in a receiving line to greet you and your family (or the loved one’s family) or standing/sitting and talking. Is the visitation prior to the ceremony? The day before?
Discuss the ceremony location, and who and what will be involved. Is the location a familiar place of worship? Who is the officiant or celebrant? Are there pallbearers, and what do they do? Will there be music? Readings? Sitting or standing?
Will there be a procession to the cemetery? Who will be going? Will your child see a hearse? Will you be scattering your loved one’s cremated remains?
Make certain your child feels empowered throughout the day, and support his or her decisions. Assure your child that, at any point, he or she can change his or her mind about attending and participating in the funeral.
Practice roles as necessary until your child feels comfortable, and don’t force a hug, handshake or participation. Avoid phrases such as, “Grandma would have wanted you to read a poem,” or “You’ll hurt Uncle John’s feelings if you don’t say hello to everyone.” Reassure your child that opting out is perfectly okay; have a plan in place to cover a participatory role.
Consider assigning a known and trusted “point person” who will not mind leaving the funeral with your child, if it becomes necessary. Let your child help select this caregiver in advance of the funeral, if appropriate.
Be sure to let your child know in advance what he or she can expect to see, and when. If your loved one’s body is present, give your child control over how close he or she would like to get to the deceased. Let your child decide how long to stay in the room, and whether he or she would like to view or touch your loved one.
Continue to allow your child to make decisions after the funeral. Would he or she like to choose a favorite dish or restaurant for dinner? Did your loved one have a cherished possession that your child may keep as a memento? Is a sleepover with friends or family an option?
Your child will be looking to you for support and guidance, and will likely notice if you are uncomfortable in your grief or during the funeral. Make sure your body language and tone mirror your words of assurance and normalcy. Remind your child that crying is okay for both children and adults. Say, "It’s okay to be nervous or sad or scared today. We’re going to feel a lot of different emotions. I’m glad we’re here together to say our special goodbyes. It’s very important, and it will help us feel much better."
Encourage your child to ask questions, and share what’s on his or her mind. It will not be uncommon for your child to ask the same questions again and again. Some questions may be direct and pointed, and it’s okay to not be able (or ready) to answer them.
Consider saying, "I’m glad you asked that question. I don’t know the answer either. Let’s find someone who might be able to answer it for us," or "It’s hard for me to answer that right now. Can we please talk about that at a different time soon?"