Should My Child Go To The Funeral?
He’s too young to understand what’s going on.
I think it will just be scary for the kids.
She will be bored.
I usually hear reasons like these for why parents choose to leave the kids at home during a funeral (I use “funeral” as a proxy for the range of cultural traditions to honor the deceased, although certain traditions seem more comfortable with including the young). As with everything related to grief, individual differences and specific situations are always important to consider. But I will tell you that based on my years working with dying, death, and grief in children, I almost always recommend that kids go to a funeral for a loved one. Here’s why and how.
What Convinced Me Kids Should Go To Funerals? They Did.
The funeral is a death ritual in our culture. Rituals are extremely important in the grieving process. They bring people together, make time and space to feel the feelings, and connect us closely to memories of the loved one. In my grief work with kids, we often talk about their experiences going to the funeral. I have never heard from a child wishing she didn’t go. It is usually a key, healing step on the grief journey.
After my years as a psychologist on a pediatric palliative care team, I worked as the psychologist for an amazing program that was a school AT the hospital for children and teenagers with chronic or life-threatening medical conditions. It was the best job of my life, watching these kids who couldn’t go to school before, flourishing in this non-traditional school environment.
What came with this amazing community of children, though, was the much higher than average risk of death in a small group of peers. It was painful and powerful to help navigate the mass group response to a death, as well as the effects on each individual child with their own mortality fears, or prior experiences of knowing friends who had died.
As fragile as these kids could be, medically and sometimes emotionally, they humbled me with their resilience as they and their parents showed up in huge numbers at funerals of their friends. I cried watching them cry, admiring their strength to show up for their friend, or even someone they may have not gotten along with, no matter how hard it was.
This showed me more than reading any journal article or book on grief: Kids are strong. They can handle it. They know what they can take on, and they know what they need.
Before The Funeral
As certain as I am that attending funerals is usually good for kids even as young as 3, I do suggest some tips for preparing beforehand:
Describe what to expect if this is their first funeral experience. If they have gone to a funeral and something about this one is different, explain what will be different so they don’t feel unprepared (eg, open casket).
Especially for younger children, prepare your child that they will likely see people crying and very sad, that YOU may be crying and very sad, but that is normal and everyone will be okay.
Depending on the relationship with the loved one, is there a way that the child could be involved so they feel like an important part of the ritual (eg, handing out programs, writing a favorite memory to share)?
Emphasize that your child has a choice to attend or not (if logistically possible). Encourage him he can even change his mind if he starts to feel upset about going (again, if logistically an option).
Talk about how she can take a break if upset OR bored, or get comfort if needed (eg, bringing a comfort item, a quiet activity) so she knows there is a plan in place.
I highly recommend never forcing a child, at any age, to go to the funeral. I might make an exception for a teenager who just wants to play fortnite instead, but if there is any glimmer of an emotional reason to not want to go, listen.
What About You?
Depending on your grief and your relationship to the person who died, you may want to have your own contingency plans to minimize how much parenting you are doing during the funeral. It is paramount that you are able to grieve how you need to for your own grief process. That will help you support your child in his own grief process.
This preparation can look different depending on your unique situation, but it is ideal to have at least one helper on hand for your children, if not a tag-team of helpers. Is there someone you could identify to take your child out of the room if needed? Is there someone who could even be the one sitting with your child (especially younger child) to quietly keep her (or them) contained while you can focus on the service?
If you are able to come up with a strategy, let your child know beforehand that this is the plan. You could even explain that you really need to be listening and helping so their favorite (Aunt? Babysitter?) will be there for anything they need.
Another great thing about children at funerals: they can actually provide some much-needed innocence and levity in a space filled by heavy feelings. Their very presence can have a healing effect on other funeral-goers, including you.
Every child is different. Every situation is different. As much as I encourage kids go to funerals, there are caveats. Some special considerations:
Your child is highly sensitive to death themes already; maybe she has nightmares after watching Up. Some kids either have a natural vulnerability to fears and anxieties that often include mortality, or they have had a scary experience in the past that makes death more traumatic than for most kids.
Possibly related to the above, if your child is already significantly anxious in general and you foresee the whole experience triggering overwhelming anxiety, that’s not good for anyone. My whole reason for recommending kids go to funerals is to promote a healthier grieving process; if it would actually undermine their psychological well-being, that comes first!
If you anticipate high-octane conflict between family members, or some sort of drama, possibly due to the type of death or pre-existing family dynamics, that could not be appropriate for a child to witness. Of course, we can never predict what will happen with certainty, but if your gut gives you a warning signal, you may want to give it extra thought.
Are their notorious family members who might interfere with your supportive strategy for your child? Someone who thinks they need to “toughen up” and force them to look at the open casket? (I heard an actual story of this happening.) Advise family members beforehand about whatever plan you have come up with for the sake of your child.
The caveat to these caveats: I still usually recommend discussing the option with your child so they don’t feel regret about wishing they had gone to the funeral, and possible anger with you for not allowing them. If you are truly concerned about their anxiety or death fears, discuss this with them so it feels to them like a collaborative decision. I’ve been surprised before, and you might too.
Our natural instincts as parents can be to protect our children from sadness and pain. Death is sad. Loss is painful. But in protecting, we may also be depriving them of building up their own strength to know they can deal with the hard parts of life. In grief work today, we no longer talk about "stages" but about the process of making meaning to help with healing. As parents, helping our kids be comfortable with death and grieving can also help them figure out life and living with meaning.
What Happens When Someone Dies? A Child's Guide to Death and Funerals, Michaelene Mundy, Ages 6-9