At the memorial service for his father, 7 1/2-year-old Quinn Austin of Milan, Michigan jumped up to show his teachers and friends the picture boards on display featuring photographs of his dad, Jeff, at various points in his life. This role helped keep Quinn involved and distracted in the service at the same time, recalls his mom, Erin.
After the loss of a close person in your child’s life, bringing him or her into this part of the process can seem daunting – and, perhaps, easier to avoid. But local parents and experts strongly emphasize that, although it may be difficult, allowing bereaved kids a place and voice in that final “goodbye” is crucial. Read on to learn why – and how.
Why involvement is important
In their guide After a Loved One Dies – How Children Grieve (which you can download for free by clicking on the title), David Schonfeld, M.D., and Marcia Quackenbush recommend that children grieving the loss of anyone – especially a parent – be offered the opportunity to attend the funeral and memorial service whenever possible.
“Children may feel hurt if they are not included in this important family event,” they write. “They lose an opportunity to feel the comfort of spiritual and community support provided through services.”
Peggy Nielsen, manager of SandCastles Grief Support Program, a division of Henry Ford Hospice, explains that the funeral also provides an opportunity for the grieving child to better grasp death’s finality.
“Children should be at the funeral and involved in the entire funeral process,” Nielsen notes. “The positive of seeing his or her deceased loved one is that the concrete thinker can see that the person is not breathing, that their chest is not moving up and down.
“But, having said that, you must prep the child for what he or she will see.”
Preparing your child
To that end, Nielsen recommends family members explain, in advance, that there will be a casket and that their loved one will be very still – and that while their body is there, they can’t feel anything.
“Kids might see the casket and wonder if their loved one is uncomfortable,” Nielsen says. “Because the casket is only half open, the child may wonder if the person’s legs have been cut off. If children don’t know what to expect, they will come up with their own explanations, which are almost always worse.
“You need to tell them the truth and what to expect at an age appropriate level.”
Schonfeld and Quackenbush recommend explaining, in detail, what will happen at the wake, the funeral and the burial, if applicable.
“In simple terms, let your children know what to expect,” they note. “Where will the service take place? Who will be there? Will there be music? Describe what people will do at the service. Will guests be crying? Will people share stories?”
During the services
While the funeral process is an important experience for the grieving child to be part of, there are considerations to keep in mind, Nielsen says.
“You can’t expect a 7-year-old to be at a funeral home all day,” she says. “Is there a different room they can retreat to throughout the day? Bring a video game or other distractions for them. Identify a family member who can be with the child throughout the day. The grieving spouse has a lot to take care of.”
Erin Austin included both Quinn and 5-year-old William in the memorial service for their father. She asked both if either would like to say a word about their dad during the service.
“Quinn didn’t, but William did,” she recalls. “So I held him up to the microphone. He was in tears saying how much he missed his dad. But then he burst out saying how much he really wanted Legos. It was a great tension-breaking moment, but was a reminder that at his age, the world revolved around him.”
Go with your child’s needs
While attendance at the funeral is encouraged, children shouldn’t be forced to attend if they indicate they aren’t comfortable.
“Let your children decide whether or not to attend,” write Schonfeld and Quackenbush. “You can let them know that you’d like them to be there, but don’t ask them to participate in any ritual or activity they find frightening or unpleasant.
“Let them know that they can leave at any point or just take a break for a few minutes.”
Offering children a role in the service can also be helpful for kids. That could mean being part of the funeral planning, including choice of music or flowers or distributing memorial cards at the service.
“Children should be involved at the level they’re comfortable,” notes Nielsen. “Explain what will happen next and let them react. See how much they can handle.”