What to Tell Children About Funerals

 

I was recently browsing through the new gift shop at Mission San Juan Capistrano, admiring the jewelry and slowly making my way to my favorite corner of the store; the book section on Grief. I’m always finding new and intriguing titles there and this time, I stumbled upon a series of children’s books on grief that deeply impressed me.

What Happens when Someone Dies?We hear the debate about children being at funerals pretty often around here and while we always encourage people to bring their children, they don’t always agree with us. Well, to my surprise, in the book What Happens When Someone Dies? the question is never even addressed, it is just automatically assumed that children will be there and explains with a delicate, gentle and uncomplicated voice what the child will experience.

Let me give you an example:

Under the question, What should I Say or Do at the Funeral Home? the author writes,

“At the funeral home, people talk about what they remember about the person who died. They talk about nice and sometimes funny times they had with the person. You may hear laughter as they remember happy times.

If you walk up to the casket, take your mom or dad’s hand. We all need each other – especially in sad times. Sometimes the casket is up too high for you to see. Ask someone to help you up.”

I don’t know about you but reading that made me feel better. The explanations are simple but address the hard stuff and don’t shy away from it.

I remember being told when it comes to children to only answer the questions they ask you. You don’t explain the complexities of life and death to your 5 year old when they’ve only asked you why you’re sad. Your answer may lead to more questions and that’s ok, but sometimes children can feel overwhelmed by information that they can’t process or understand. This book is an excellent resource. If you don’t want to read the whole book to them you can still reference this book to help you answer their questions in your own way.

What Happens When Someone Dies? addresses some tough questions like:

  • Why do people die?
  • Does it hurt to die?
  • Are there other ways people say goodbye? (an explanation of cremation)
  • What happens at the funeral home?
  • What should I say or do at the funeral home?
  • Why are some people at the funeral home happy and laughing?
  • What should I do at the church funeral service?
  • What happens at the cemetery?
  • When will everything be ok again?

*These books do have a religious overtones referencing Heaven, God and prayer. I don’t feel they are heavy-hitting but these books may not be appropriate in their entirety for particular faiths.

I continue to be surprised by families who disagree with our funeral arrangers who see day-in and day-out the power of ceremony and how children react and benefit. Our arrangers are experts who can testify endlessly to the power of being included and present at a funeral; but too often a family’s fears and sense of protection keep children from experiencing a ceremony that would actually bring them even greater peace.

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RobertHoetink A recent article entitled, “Should Children Attend Funerals?” states that despite public opinion, “child bereavement experts are united in believing that children should be offered the chance to attend funerals, regardless of how young they are.” The article goes on to quote one of these experts, Helen McKinnon, who says, “I’ve never yet come across anyone who regrets going to a funeral as a child. But what we do hear time and time again is those who wish they had gone and in many of those cases, it’s prevented them from starting on their grieving journey.”

This same article quotes Christina Brady who had to attend school the same day as her mother’s funeral. She asks the powerful question: “… if adults need a ritual to mark the passing of someone dear to them, doesn’t it follow that children – who are less able than anyone to make sense of the mess of feelings that follow a death – need it even more?”

The answer seems simple: Yes, they do.

There are two messages – this book offers one of understanding, acceptance, and compassion. The other only perpetuates the great fear and avoidance of death our culture has adopted. Let’s give our children the right message.

|| what do you think?

– Where do you stand in this debate and why?

– What answers were you given as a child when you asked about death and how did they help or hinder your understanding?

 

Other books on tough subjects available in this thoughtful series are:

Molly Keating

About Molly Keating

Hi, I'm Molly and I write for the blog here at O'Connor. I grew up in a mortuary with a mortician for a father who's deep respect for the profession inspired me to give working at a mortuary a try. Work at O'Connor has brought together two of my deep passions, writing & grief awareness. In 2016 I earned Certification in the field of Thanatology, the study of Death, Dying and Bereavement. I am honored to be able to speak on these taboo topics with knowledge, compassion, and a unique perspective. I want to sincerely thank you for following & reading the blog, I hope that this is a healing place for you.
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  • Neil

    Hi Molly –

    This is a great topic that many of our families ask us. Yes, I believe that children should be taught about the circle of life. Just as we include them in all other life events, birthday’s, holidays, weddings, anniversaries. I also love when our families bring their dogs to viewing or funerals, we all are part of the bigger picture or one family under God. I would always communicate to the child and give a good explanation of the death and why we are having a funeral, then let the child decide if they want to attend or not. I love your thought provoking blogs, great job!

    • Thank you so much Neil! I love how far you took this – if we are talking community, why shouldn’t we include pets if they were a significant part of that person’s life? People do it in weddings all of the time and since we know that pets do grieve, wouldn’t it be wonderful to involve them in a ceremony? Yes, I definitively agree with you!

      Thank you for always sharing your wonderful ideas that take it to the next level!

      Molly

  • Anne

    Hi Molly,
    Here’s my two cents…
    My mom died when I was 4 1/2 and dad when I was 5. Mother’s casket was in our living room for calling times (This was 1952 and how it was done.) and I dragged the chair from the dining room when I was alone to get up there to see her, touch her and kiss her. I had been told and understood that this was just her body and she was already in heaven. I attended both funerals with my siblings. A group picture following the funeral showed me genuinely smiling. The family and friends around, and me being included apparently helped me.
    My great granddaughter, Elisabeth, at 5 years old, was included in all the family gatherings around Lou’s hospital bed in our living room as he lay dying. She pulled a chair up so she could kiss him and lay her cheek on his and tell him she loved him more than once. Since then she talks freely about how much she misses him and hopes he made friends quickly in heaven. Sometimes when he is the subject of our conversations, she will look up, smile and blow multiple kisses into the air towards the sky.
    These examples are healthy. My childhood memories of inclusion at the ceremonies of my parents and subsequent other relatives helped prepare me for my ultimate loss of Lou.
    Good blog!
    Hugs,
    Anne

    • Oh Anne, you know better than anyone from your first hand experience, how healing a funeral can be for a child. I find your story so touching – I love that, like the book, your society at that time (and still to this day in Michigan I’m sure) automatically assumed children would be present and participatory. There weren’t the fears we have now – I wonder where they came from?

      Thank you so much for sharing not only your own story but Elizabeth’s as well. She will never forget and always be grateful that she was there, present, in those moments with Lou.

      Thank you for giving her the blessing you were given,

      Molly

  • Jeff Turner

    Molly,

    I know this one first hand. When I was five, my paternal grandfather died. He was fun and funny with all of us. He died suddenly of a heart attack. I went to a neighbor’s home while everyone else in the family, including my two oldest sisters went to the “funeral”, which remained a mysterious event. I went the following day to the cemetery where the grave was covered with flowers. I remember, they were laid out in a perfect rectangle. I stood there trying to figure out how they got grandpa down there, what was the box like, how did he look. I remember feeling left out and puzzled.

    Fast forward thirty-seven years. My father brings a manilla folder to our house one evening with a photo he had discovered and wanted me to see. By this time I had been in funeral service for 16 years. I had embalmed and prepared more than 600 people entrusted to my care and I knew as well as anyone can, the answers to all of those questions my five year old mind could conjure, or so I thought. As I opened the folder I was suddenly transported back to those same questions that began standing at my grandfather’s grave. There was a black and white photo of Grandpa Turner in his casket. “So that’s how he looked! And that is the box he is in.” As surprising as the seeing the photograph was, I was even more unprepared for the deep latent need that was unexpectedly satisfied. Like a deep sigh of relief that I wasn’t even conscious I needed.

    My parents made a decision either with advice or out of their own concern and personal anxieties about death. They did what they thought they should based upon what they knew at the time. It simply wasn’t the best thing they could have done. Fortunately for me, I suffered no ill affects that hindered me in any way that I know of. But that sigh of relief told me that there was more to my need than I would have thought.

    Thanks for writing this one.

    Jeff

    • Jeff,
      What a story. THAT is a testament to how being left out actually makes these children FEEL left out. That feeling affected your grief and while you didn’t suffer trauma from the lack of the experience, your grief wasn’t satiated, completed or at rest until you had those questions and concerns at last answered. That is just incredible.

      As I read your story I thought of the children denied from going to a parent’s funeral or a sibling’s. A grandparent is such a significant relationship but generally not as life-debilitating as these closer family losses and yet people continue to deny children these experiences that unfortunately, only lead to further debilitation.

      I LOVE your story – it’s beautiful and profound. I’m so, so glad you found that sigh.

      Molly

  • Amy

    Molly,
    I could not agree more that no matter what age you need to experience the process. When both my mother’s died in 1989 and 1991, I was at the arrangements and both funeral’s with my mother. When my father’s parents died in 1993 and 1995 again I was involved in the process. When my mother-in-law died in 2001, my daughter’s were 3 and 4 years old. They were with her while she was sick and dying. They went through the process of being at the service and burial. I’m not sure they completely understood but they still remember now certain things about that day.
    When my dad died just 3 months ago again my daughters now 16 and 17 and myself took care of my dad until his last breath. They helped with the arrangements and service. I feel it is very important to include children regardless of the age. They need to grieve just like adults. It might be in a different way. By sheltering them from it your not helping them to understand. Your robing them of this time that will never come again.
    This is such great helpful information that we have as a resource to offer families and friends that have a death. Thanks for sharing.
    Amy

    • Amy,
      Wow. You’ve lived it – you’ve seen the power and can testify to the treasure these experiences were for both you and your daughters.
      Your point is superb, children need to be given the same opportunity to grieve as adults are given. Yes, it will be a different experience for them and they may not understand all that they are seeing, but you know what? I have a suspicion that many adults don’t understand what they’re seeing and also have difficulty processing what’s going on – I don’t think that’s limited to kids. And if we give children these opportunities as they come along the better equipped they will be in life – it’s just true.

      Thank you so much for sharing your excellent insight on this subject, it’s so appreciated!

      Molly

  • Elsa

    great discussion Molly. This question comes up constantly when a child suffered a death of a loved one. This is always a tough question to answer or approach. On one hand, we know what is the right thing to do and on the other I never want to step on the toes of the parents when it comes to advice for their children. Most of the time I try and keep a neutral approach and be more informative than recommending advice.

    • Excellent point, Elsa. I think you’re approach is so wise – we aren’t here to bully a family into doing something they are against, but if we can provide facts for them to make educated decisions off of, then we have done our job. I love how thoughtful your approach is – thank you so much for sharing!

      Molly

  • Christopher Iverson

    Molly,
    My young daughters, along with many other great-grandchildren, were at the bedside when their great-grandfather died. There was the reality of the dying and then the death, but my daughters were happy that they were there. As adults, they appreciate being a part of that chapter in our family’s life. As my daughter Alexis shared with me years ago, she would’ve felt “cheated” out of the opportunity to be enjoined with everyone if I would have kept her apart from the family. She would have felt as if she wasn’t “connected” with everyone else touched by the event. Now, years later, her memories are strong, although somewhat embellished, and she doesn’t fear death at all.

    • Chris,
      What a perfect testimony to the idea that these child bereavement experts have never encountered anyone who would say that they wish they hadn’t been present – everyone who has had the privilege of witnessing a death or a funeral ceremony is better and healthier for it.

      Thank you so much for sharing your family’s experience, that is so powerful.

      Molly

  • Shayna Williams

    Molly,
    Wow great blog. I love the topic because you are right people and parents don’t know exactly how to handle a death or a service when children are involved. It is a topic and question that come up a lot in our industry. I think these books on grief will help us all understand how to explain these difficult situations to young children. Thank you for writing on such an important topic.
    Shayna

    • Thank you so much Shayna! I know you see first-hand some of these conversations and debates. I’m glad you found them useful and I hope you can continue to spread the word & help families make healthy decisions for their children!

      Molly

  • Yes, and alternately, if they don’t want to come I don’t know if we should be forcing that on them – another interesting question!

    I’m glad you thought this was a good topic and I’m sure now you see with crystal clarity the great tenderness of topics like these with little children.

    Thank you for sharing, Joanna!

  • Carrie Bayer

    Dear Molly, I am so glad you are touching on this topic, it is a hot one! Just this week I had a family ask me if they should have their child there, of course I said yes & explained why. They followed my lead & it turns out that the sweet boy was way ahead of everyone else. He truly knew what we are taught to forget as we grow up- death is natural, we all will die & it’s nothing to fear. He was comforting his family in a way I’ve seen from children before- hugs, kisses, kind & wise words, wiping away tears. It was truly a beautiful moment. Thank you, Molly! Carrie

    • What a wonderful outcome – I’d never thought about how children end up becoming a source of comfort rather than the ones needing most of the comfort. I’m so glad we have champions like you helping families and their children into these experiences.

      Thank you for sharing your awesome insight, Carrie!

      Molly

  • Michael Thomas

    Does it hurt to die? is probably the most poignant question I remember thinking while I was a little guy. I guess as a child, life is so simple that really all we care about is what hurts and what feels good. I remember playing games in school like “would you rather..” with my friends, and I specifically remember one where my friend asked “Would you rather die by drowning, or by burning?” and my immediate response was “Neither. I’m going to live forever.”

    So far, so good.

    • Nice answer! And yes, given those options, living forever sounds favorable. It’s so fascinating the questions that mean something to us – I’d love to hear your answer to it someday.

      Molly

  • Erin Fodor

    Molly,
    I do believe in all children being able to attend a funeral of a loved one. I think that
    children should have a voice. They can always say no I don’t want to go, or no I don’t want to see. But coming from experience if you deny the child the chance, they will always remember that and wonder. And sometimes the wonder can be made up into a greater deal than the actual act of the funeral or viewing. I was told my last image of my father would be that of him lying in the casket. That is untrue, and I was quite relieved when I saw him. I had made the accident out, and the way my father looked out to be a lot worse than the reality. I am thankful for O’Connor and the service and viewing that helped begin my journey of grief.

    • Erin,
      Your voice in this is so beautiful, strong, and valuable. I so appreciate the perspective you bring to the importance of children being present and the power of your experience. Your comment on “wonder” is so interesting to me, it’s continued to come up in this conversation so much. The wondering is worse – it always is, especially for families who have suffered traumatic deaths.

      I so appreciate you – thank you for sharing.

      Molly

  • Shasta Cola

    I agree, children should go to funerals. I think society as a whole does not give them the credit they deserve as far as understanding things. For someone to suddenly be gone, especially someone important to the child, I am sure they need an explanation or they will go on confused for quite some time. I think the visual is definitely beneficial, whether it be viewing or just a memorial service. To see that the life had meaning, enough meaning to celebrate and commemorate with a service and a gathering of people who loved the person, would probably shed some clarity on the situation. I also think that it’s important to convey to the child that this happens to everyone, it is not a bad thing necessarily, even though sometimes it is tragic. I think as a child I had a vague understanding of death, not going to any funerals myself until I was about 12. Before that though, I just knew the person was gone never to return, and I had a fear of funerals. I had heard they were scary and what I thought up in my mind was 100% worse than the truth. Now I wish I had attended some of them. I see a lot of similarities between children and adults in their need to attend services. People at any age are affected greatly by death and need some type of event to signify that the loss has occurred and that life will never be quite the same without that person.

    • Shasta,
      Remembering what your thought of death before you got to see it is so interesting. I’m fascinated about how much it bothered you, it bothered you to the extent that you built and created something around it to help you understand. That is such proof that children think about death, they wonder about it, and if answers aren’t offered or aren’t given then mysteries and wonders, possibly even terrors can arise.

      Thank you so much for sharing that with me, such a unique view!

      Molly

  • Becky Finch Lomaka

    Molly,
    Another stellar blog and such an important topic. I definitely stand on the side of having children attend funerals and participate in the ceremonies. Several studies site that children who view their deceased parent and attend the funeral have a much lower risk of complicated grief. And I know from personal experience that children need to be a part of the family during this time.

    Thank you for writing about this. The more we talk about death, grief, bereavement, our final wishes, etc., we slowly begin to undo the stigma surrounding these conversations.

    Becky

    • Thank you so much Becky. I know you have seen first hand the power of having children involved in a service, not only because they need to handle it, but because it gives them a sense of ownership and allows them to take part in an important and meaningful expression.

      I always appreciate your perspective,

      Molly

  • Fitz

    Molly,
    Great topic. Children absolutely need to be involved in some capacity in the ceremonies of their loved one. In fact, depending on the age of the child, it is therapeutic for them to be involved in the planning in some capacity. Whether it is writing a letter to their loved one that could be read at the service or gathering photos for the service, the benefit of them feeling they were a part of the service will have long term benefit on their grief journey.
    Thanks for bringing this topic to the forefront.
    Fitz

    • That’s so interesting, Fitz. I didn’t think about the planning side of it but that is such a great idea. it would be such a great exercise to present kids with some options or let them come up with their own way to be involved in the service. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing!

      Molly

  • Mitch

    Great subject. Kids should always be included. I think it gives a sense of closure. That their loved one stopped “coming home.” And I think they feel more a part of the family. Thank you Molly for all of your great topics.

    • Thank you so much Mitch!! I’m glad you found this one interesting, I really appreciate it!

      Molly

  • Lori

    Molly,
    Such a tough, but necessary topic….
    My main advice, be honest! Obviously the content has to be tailored to be age appropriate. I speak from experience. Details were sugar-coated and fabricated to protect me. All it did was cause more confusion and resentment once I learned the truth.
    Kids are smart and deserving of knowing the truth about something they will all encounter at some point in their lives. And yes, they should definitely be present for ceremonies.

    Lori

    • Lori,
      Honesty is the best policy! How is it so basic yet we create all these empty phrases or protective cages with the hope of masking the truth and avoiding the painful truth. I appreciate your insight and value your point-of-view, I’m also glad it lines up with mine! ; )

      Molly

  • Mark

    Molly…..Thank you for sharing this very thoughtful and well written resource for children and death….I am reminded of my 3 year old triplet nephews at my grandfather’s funeral…they first asked “Who shotted him?”….my brother explained to them that no one had been shot, granddad died….their second question was asked as they looked into the half-opened casket, “What happened to his legs?”….a very wise funeral director overheard the question and opened the bottom half of the casket to reveal that indeed granddad’s legs were still there….I have often thought what scars could have been imbedded in my nephews’ minds if it were not for that funeral director…….Mark

    • The funeral director is a powerful figure – a miracle worker, a myth-demystifier, and a god-send. I love that that story has stuck with you through the years and become a part of your own craft as you help families.

      Thank you for all you do Mark!

      Molly

  • Lauren

    Molly, great post! I hope this post inspires parents and adults who didn’t agree with children attending to at least re-think having them involved with viewing or attending a funeral service. That quote by Christina Brady is a very powerful one. I always knew viewing for children was important but that helps put it into perspective. Thank you for the list of children’s books!
    When I was younger, my family had an easier time talking about death than where babies come from. My parents explained things in a gentle, matter of fact way about death and how it is a natural part of life.
    Thanks for writing this!!

    • Lauren,
      I’m so glad you found this useful! I love finding resources that help us give our families reasons and evidence that can help guide them.
      That is so funny that your parents found death easier than babies – I think I’ll have the same problem : )

      Thank you so much for your encouragement!

      Molly

  • Jenn

    Hi Molly, I think children should be exposed to the death of a loved one, though obviously on different levels. Rather than be blunt and too honest with young ones I think its more important to talk about their feelings and talk through what happens next and how they feel about it. I have a book I got in mortuary school that I love called: “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf” that speaks about death but in a different perspective that reads more like a children’s story than a grief support book. After watching “Grief Camp” an HBO documentary on Camp Erin, a three day camp for kids who have lost loved ones, it is clear that kids know that someone has died and just need help working through their emotions but feel like they cant talk about it because no one is talking about it with them. I think that is why it is important to not try to hide things from them, they are more perceptive than we give them credit for. 🙂

    • Such wonderful insight Jenn! I need to learn more about Camp Erin and watch that documentary. I love how much further you take this, it needs to go beyond just talking about the event (although it does need to start there). These conversations can’t stop with how we feel about the funeral but must continue into probably each year of our lives as we discover new griefs.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective – look for something in the future!

      Molly

  • Joe Lavoie

    Molly , Thank You for sharing I feel it’s important for everyone as a family to discuss when someone dies to better educate and help express empathy and care to help their children understand. Their are many guides out there now to make it easier to do this and should be shared . We have to make sure as parents not only for us to understand but for our children to as well. My parents always tried to explain things to myself and my siblings in ways we would all understand to help in our own grief and theirs. Thank You again for sharing.
    sincerely Joe Lavoie

    • Joe,
      I’m so glad you find this useful. I think it’s so wonderful that your parents respected you and your siblings by helping you into understanding rather than keeping it from you. Thank you, Joe.

      Molly

  • Rosemary

    Thank you, Molly! I totally agree that children need to be included when there is a death in the family. They already know that something has happened and need to understand and have the words to help them process it. And there are so many excellent resources available for parents. It is so great that you have planted this seed in our minds so that when the need arises, we will think to look for these materials.

    • Thank you so much Rosemary!
      I so appreciate the interest you take in this and the fact that you’re wanting to store this away for future families. I love sharing resources like these and I’m so glad you found it as useful and compelling as I did.

      Thank you!

      Molly

  • Christina Hassanzadeh

    Thank you Molly this is such an excellent topic. I believe that children need to be involved in he funeral and service process. As adults we must remember that death,
    grief, and 
the overall healing process does affect them just as it affects us.
    Due to
 their age and innocence they are affected differently but they are
    still
 experiencing pain and a sense of loss. They need our guidance, our
    support, and 
answers to help them understand what is happening around them. As
    a parent it
is my job to protect my children and as such I feel that by
    excluding them from 
this type of experience can be detrimental and leave them
    fearful and 
lost. Thank you again for this important and valuable topic.
    -

Christina Hassanzadeh