David Techner was nine when his grandfather died. His parents regrettably waited until after the funeral to tell him. Since then, Techner has always felt deprived of the chance to say goodbye to his beloved grandfather.
“I decided that wasn’t going to happen to anyone else,” says Techner, a well-known national expert on helping kids understand death, the funeral director of the Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield, and author of the children’s book A Candle for Grandpa.
Should children attend a funeral?
Funeral home directors are frequently asked if children should be brought to a funeral, visitation or cemetery. The answer is almost always yes.
“Children, even at a very early age, have an awareness of death and a response to death and they should be given the option to attend the visitation, service or both,” says John Desmond, funeral director at A.J. Desmond & Sons in Troy.
Dr. John Canine, an author, psychologist and nationally known expert on grief counseling in Clarkston, also encourages families to include, but not force, children to attend a funeral and/or visitation. He states that there are many benefits for both children and adults to grieve with family and friends.
“More positivity comes from taking a child and allowing him to be a part of the process than having him stay at home,” says Canine. When his father died, his sons, then 14, 12 and 7, stood by his side and watched him laugh and cry as mourners paid their respects and shared stories and memories. “There is strength in collective grief,” he adds.
Parents can get additional tips on helping kids cope with death here.
When to talk about death
Experts can’t pick a number and tell parents “this is the right age” but they do know that typically after the age of seven a child is able to conceptualize the finality of death according to Desmond.
Techner says that instead of age, the focus could be on the child’s relationship with the deceased. More specifically, how much will that child’s life be impacted by the absence of that individual?
Because seeing is believing, attending a funeral and visiting a cemetery helps a child realize that a loved one has died, according to Canine. Being at the funeral or cemetery is more concrete evidence than just a statement that “Uncle Jack died.”
Kids have a natural curiosity about death and although parents may be hesitant to bring this topic to the forefront, children need to understand that death is a part of life.
“I’ve had parents tell me that they were disappointed over not taking their child to a cemetery or funeral. But no parent has ever said they regret taking their child,” says Techner.
Talking to kids about death and taking them to a funeral doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Consider the following information and advice when addressing the topic:
- A child’s age is important when talking about death. The older a child is, the more discussion centering on concepts can occur. Children at age seven are able to understand concepts, so before that age, only use basic facts about a death, says Canine. Children under seven have a sensed response so when a parent cries out of the child’s sight, the child can still sense his mother or father’s grief.
- Help your child to understand the physical aspects of death. Techner accomplishes this by letting kids know that when somebody dies, their body doesn’t work anymore so they don’t need it. A child also needs to understand what will happen to that person’s body (i.e. burial or cremation). When Techner wants kids to understand this concept, he tells them “we can’t just leave their body in the closet.” This helps a child to better understand what really happens to a person’s body after they die.
- Once a child gains an understanding of the physical aspect of death, discuss the spiritual aspect of death by sharing personal beliefs such as what happens to a person’s soul.
- Know that there will be times there are no answers and “I don’t know” is an appropriate response. It’s important to be honest. The truth, says Techner, is better than half-truths or silence.
- Include your child in the mourning process. For example, ask if they’d like to go to the funeral or visitation and carefully explain the events by telling them what they may see and hear.
Desmond says it’s best when children, through their early teens, come to visitation for a short time but only because the social aspects of visitation can make supervision difficult.
Books are another great way to help children cope. Check out our list of books for children and families dealing with grief.
This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2016.