When asked this question, my first response is, “What does the child want to do?” If the child doesn’t want to attend, I suggest gently exploring the child’s reasons. It may be they just don’t have adequate or correct information about what a viewing or funeral is to make the best decision for themselves. Their decision may be based on falsehoods or ideas they received from movies, television, stories heard from friends or attitudes about the death that had been role modeled by the adults in their life. Answering a few simple questions from you may help them in their decision to attend.
The next question I usually ask is, “How old are they?” This helps in providing age-appropriate information. This developmental guideline will help in knowing how they perceive death and dying, and as such, know how to explain these concepts in terms they can understand. You can refer to my posting dated May 29, 2006 titled, “Children and Grief” to learn more about children’s developmental perspectives on death.
If the decision is made to let the child attend, then make sure you take the time to explain everything they may encounter in that situation so they will be prepared. If it’s a viewing they will be attending, let them know what a funeral home is and what it will typically look like. Let them know about viewing the body, what the body may look like, how it may feel, that the body will be laying in a coffin and what is a coffin. Usually a discussion about what it means to be dead is had before you get this far, because depending on their age, you may need to re-explain that death means you can’t feel anymore. Let them know about the different reactions they may see people having. Let them know that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Let them know that it is ok to cry, laugh or play. Let them know that it is ok for you to cry and for them not to be worried. Have a back-up plan in case they are unable to handle the event once they get there, or perhaps you become too grief stricken to attend to the child. Usually it is suggested to have a relative or trusted friend, available to take the child to another room, or back home. The same explanation process holds true for the funeral. They will have questions and curiosity about coffins, being buried or being cremated. If you need help with the correct terminology, or how to initiate these types of conversations, feel free to contact me. I have many resources that can be helpful with these situations.
Always, the best rule of thumb is to provide honest, age-appropriate information. Children have active imaginations and will fill in their own blanks about a situation if information isn’t provided to them from the adults in their life. Often what they come up with is worse than the truth. Children can be very capable of handling most information. However, after advising parents on this question, I always defer to what the parents feel will be best for their children. After all, they know their child better than anyone. I’ll give you an example of a scenario that can be possible for your children, based off of recent personal experiences.
My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2006. She spent many days in the hospital, endured many days of chemo, lost her hair, lost a lot of weight, became weaker and fatigued with each passing month, until her death in February. Her youngest daughter and son-in-law have a 5 ½ year old daughter and a 7 year old son. When Grandma was first diagnosed and in the hospital, the children were told, by their parents, that Grandma is sick and the doctors are trying to make her better. They were encouraged to make frequent visits to the hospital and their curiosity and questions about the hospital environment were answered very matter-of-factly. The parents role modeled appropriate behaviors expected in the hospital and toward their Grandma.
The parents continued to role model appropriate behaviors toward their Grandma when she came home, lost her hair, became thinner and weaker. They still continued to visit just as much as they used to and made her many get-well cards.
These children also had a prior, recent experience with loss when their pet dog died. Their parents explained that death is a part of life and that every living thing will one day die. They also explained that most people and animals die of old age, like their dog. Their dog was cremated and a basic explanation about what that meant was provided. Because this was done, they readily accepted the receipt of their dog in a wooden box that now sits in a special place on their mantel. On occasion, they take their dog on “walks” by carrying around her ashes. Based on the family’s spiritual beliefs, the children know that their dog’s soul is in heaven, and they believe she is happy and running around.
Based on these experiences, their grieving process, and the explanations that were provided to them, they were able to accept Grandma’s death more easily. They knew that Grandma had a type of sickness that the doctors couldn’t fix. They knew it wasn’t a sickness that everyone gets, and it’s a sickness that’s very different from being sick with a cold. You don’t have to teach your children about all the ways a person can die, or the different ages that people can die. Just use the teachable moments as they happen to enter your child’s life and take it from there.
These children did want to go to the funeral and their parents did explain to them what to expect. They were encouraged to write a letter or make a card to put in the casket with Grandma. This was done because although we all knew that Grandma had cancer, she was actively seeking treatment and her death was sudden and unexpected, which left a lot of things unsaid by the family. After the first day of the viewing, Grandma’s casket was filled with letters, pictures, cards and the 5 ½ year old made paper flowers to put in the casket with her Grandma. Grandma looked festive and well-loved.
Both children also observed the behaviors of the adults present that first day. The 5 ½ year old approached the casket and said, “Hi Grandma” then knelt down at the railing, bowed her head, clasped her hands together and prayed. She then got up and ran to the next room to play. The 7 year old did the same as his sister, but he also observed that many of the adults were crying and carrying around tissues. So when he got up from the casket, he reached for a tissue and started to dab at his eyes, while looking up at his dad to make sure he was doing the right thing. Even though he truly wasn’t crying, his dad put an arm around him and said, “I know buddy, it’s ok to be sad.” As the day progressed, the family members became less visibly upset and upon observing this, the 7 year old announced, “I’m glad people aren’t sad anymore. It’s ok you know, we’re all going to die someday, even me.” The grief counselor in me was most impressed, and I gave him a huge hug and told him how much I loved him. He broke away from my hug and looked at me strangely, perhaps wondering why that response from him would elicit such a response from me. To him, he stated an obvious truth. He was quite comfortable with this fact of life. He ended the evening by approaching the casket and saying, “See you tomorrow Grandma. Have fun in heaven tonight.”
The next day showed they were no less prepared. As we gathered to say our final good-byes to Grandma, before going to the church for the funeral service, many family members became visibly upset again as each one approached the casket. Upon seeing her older cousin crying at the casket, the 5 ½ year old joined him, put an arm across his back and looked up into his face. Saying nothing, she just patted his back. He gratefully held her as he cried and they got up to leave together. How does a 5 ½ year old know that just being there for someone in pain can be just as powerful and healing as words? She modeled the behaviors that were role-modeled to her by the adults in her life.
Once we got to the church, the children asked their mother when they would see Grandma again. When they realized they wouldn’t actually get to see her in the physical sense anymore, they beganto cry. But their mother reminded them that Grandma was in heaven, just like their dog. She also reminded them that Grandma was going to be cremated, just like their dog was. And just like their dog, Grandma would have a special place on their mantel. These explanations and beliefs seemed to help ease their sorrow. We did wonder if Grandma would now join them whenever they decided to take their dog for a “walk” again. But as the children work through their grief process, the need to “walk” their dog, and Grandma, will become less and less.
If more children felt this comfortable about death and dying, we’d have a more supportive world in our adult years. Should your child attend a viewing or a funeral? Ultimately, it’s up to you, the parent, to know what your child can handle, but know the key is what kind of role model in grief are you able to provide to your child.
Until next week, please be gentle with yourself.
P.S. If you have found this posting or previous postings helpful, please consider making a donation to The Bereavement Center. We are a non-profit organization that serves the community, and we operate solely on donations from families, clients and the community. As always, your donation will be greatly appreciated and acknowledged.