In my role as a death doula I often get asked if children should attend funerals. Attending funerals can help with the grieving process, give children exposure to mourning rituals, and help to normalize death. It really depends on the comfort level of the family as well as the developmental level of the child, but yes, I do encourage children to attend funerals.
If needed, have a trusted someone available to mind the child, especially if they are much younger and need a break. Respect their choice to go or not, if possible. If they don’t want to participate in the service, help them to engage in their own service or ritual to say a goodbye. Commemorate the loss formally or informally. Hold a memorial service and allow them to say goodbye. It will help them see how valued and important the deceased was to others and to know that it is okay to grieve.
I’d give the following advice to prepare a child for what will occur at a funeral. First, treat attendance at a funeral they way you would treat any other formal event such as a wedding, graduation, etc. Children often behave quite well if they are given the following 3 things:
1. Prior preparation (expected attire, behaviour expectations, entrance and exit protocols), guidelines about what to expect regarding sights (such as an open or closed casket, framed photos, if the deceased had a twin sibling, relatives who might be there, slideshow of pictures), sounds to expect (other people crying, music and songs), smells (incense, flowers, candles), religious ceremony specifics (communion mass, prayers, eulogy, when to stand/sit/pray/move), etc.
2. Support (someone to comfort them, a favourite comfort item if needed, the availability of tissue boxes, or water bottles and snacks, location of washroom, location of a room to go to if a time away is needed)
3. Follow up after the funeral (talk about what happened, put the loss into perspective)
I firmly believe that children should be encouraged to take a “comfortable” part in the funeral. Roles for children, depending on age and maturity levels, might include doing a reading at the service, selecting flowers for the casket or tombstone, singing a song, or being an honorary pall bearer.
When following up after the funeral, please respect differences in grieving styles. Children within the same family may have wildly different methods of coping, and that is normal. Let them work through it, however, is best for them. Here are some tips to keep in mind according to author David Kessler, “The Needs of the Dying”:
1. Listen without judgment. Reflect what they say back to them and ask them about their experience. Avoid telling them how they should or shouldn’t think, feel, or behave in their grieving process.
2. Take a break from grieving and allow the child to take a break from grieving. Children may need more time than adults to smile, laugh, and have fun, and may even require it to heal.
3. Help them to understand and make sense of what has or is happening. Tell them the truth.
4. Help them grieve or express their emotional responses to the present or anticipated loss. Validate appropriate feelings.
In conclusion, as a death doula, I feel that it is very important to expose children to funerals and death rituals. Funerals are an opportunity to understand that death is always a part of the circle of life. Funerals are an opportunity to discuss death and to place it in perspective. Burial/cremation options demonstrate that we continue to respect bodies even after the soul has flown.
Learning to say goodbye when a parent dies, by Eda LeShan
The Needs of the Dying, by David Kessler,