Few subjects are more terrifying to adults than explaining death to a child. This may be because very few adults have any formal training in understanding how to effectively deal with grief themselves. What little training we have had usually revolves around things that we have heard others say at a time of loss. Many of these comments, such as “grief just takes time,” are likely to delay recovery, rather than enhance it. (Time is not a factor in dealing with grief. The key is in what you do with that time!)
Before we discuss whether or not to take your child to a funeral, we need to lay some of the ground work regarding things that you might need to know and discuss prior to the service.
How children think
Young children learn about the world based on what they see, smell, and touch, and what you tell them. They will ask you questions based on what they want to know at any given moment. When they ask you questions about a death or a funeral, it is important that you give them honest and simple answers that directly respond to their questions. If they want more information, they will ask for it. As adults, especially when we are asked a question that makes us uncomfortable, we often over explain things to the point of confusing our children.
What to tell children about death
First and foremost, tell them the truth! If they ask, “What happened to Grandma?” tell them that she died. If you speak to them first in religious terms, such as “She has gone to Heaven,” then they may very well want to go and visit her and not understand why they cannot go right now. If you tell them something like “Jesus took her to be with Him,” or something of a similar nature, based on your personal faith teachings, they may resent Him for taking her away. Please keep in mind that they will remember what you say as fact, but they may not share with you how they interpret it.
If they ask you what death is, tell them the truth, in simple terms, about how serious the accident or illness was and that Grandma’s body could not keep working. Be sure that you also tell them that just getting sick does not mean that you will die. It is important that they understand that this only happens when someone is very sick. If you do not make this point clear, they may worry that even a common cold may cause death.
Let them know that when a person dies, they are no longer in pain. If the person who died had been in pain, this may better help them understand the differences between life and death.
Tell Them How You Feel
Parents often think that they have to be strong for their children. This can send the wrong message.
Children learn to respond to situations by watching adults. If you do not share your emotions with them or tell them that they should not be sad or cry, you run the risk of their thinking that being sad about death is somehow wrong. Grief is the normal reaction to any change you experience.
It is important for children to see how the death impacts you. If you try to protect them by hiding your emotions or leaving the room every time you start to cry, they will copy your example. At the same time, you need to assure them that if you become upset due to all of the emotions you are facing, it is not their fault and it is not because you are mad at them.
Attending the Visitation and the Funeral
If the child has never been to a visitation or a viewing at a funeral home, it is important to tell them, in simple terms, what they are going to see. Be sure to explain that the body will be in a casket, explaining that this is simply a special container or box, and why that particular casket might have been selected. You might tell them that some caskets are only open from the waist up, and that even though they cannot see the legs and feet, that the person is fully dressed inside that part where they cannot see. (It is not uncommon for young children, again due to their being visually focused, to wonder if what they cannot see is somehow missing.)
Let them know that the person in the casket may look a bit different than before. You might also let them know that they can touch the person in the casket, but never force them to do so. Explain to them that the person will not feel the same as before they died and that the skin will feel cold and different. (Keep in mind that the body is now at room temperature, rather than the normal temperature of the living.) Explaining this may also help them better understand that death is very different than life. Let them know that it is alright to talk to the person in the casket and share any feelings that they might have, but that the person in the casket will not be able to respond to them.
Before the funeral service, explain to the child why we have funerals. Tell them that this is a time to remember that special person and help eachother deal with the emotional pain of losing them. Tell them about who will talk and what kind of music they might hear. You should also tell them if the casket will be open and that some people may send flowers to show that they care. If there is a burial after the service, be sure to explain what they will see at the graveside. If you need more information to explain what they might see or help in answering questions, do not hesitate to call the funeral home and ask questions. Correct information is always better than a guess about the details!
As part of this process, it might also be helpful to share any spiritual beliefs that you have related to funeral practices. Remember to keep your explanations simple. If they ask a question, give them an honest answer.
If you tell children what they might expect to see and hear during a visitation or funeral service, that there will be times when they will need to try to be quiet, and that they may see people who are sad or crying, they can tell you if they wish to attend. Given all of this information, they are much better able to determine the need than are you! Forcing them to go or stay home, against their wishes, will hurt them more than it will help.
Please keep in mind that young children may change their minds or become restless during the service and want to be somewhere else. You can prepare for this ahead of time by making arrangements with someone else that they trust to take them out of the service, if that becomes necessary, and you are unable to do so. Forcing them to stay seated and be quiet often sends the wrong signals.
What Not To Say
Remember that telling the truth is important. Straying from the truth is what causes the most problems for children in understanding the concepts of death and grief.
These are a few things you should avoid saying to children after a death.
“She is Asleep” Telling a child that death is anything like sleeping can be upsetting and confusing to a child. They may think that if you fall asleep, you might be buried.
“God took her to be with Him” or “God only takes the best” While this may be true based on your personal faith, young children may take this to mean that God takes away the people we love. They might also take this to mean that those left behind were not good enough for God. It is better, instead, to tell your child that the person who died went to be with God after their death.
“Grief just take time” Young children have little sense of time. Older children will quickly discover that the passage of time does nothing to heal the emotional pain of loss.
“Grandma wouldn’t want you to cry” This might be true in your mind, but it tells the child that expressing emotional pain is wrong. Again, grief is normal and natural, and so are tears. Telling a child not to cry or feel bad implies that it is wrong to have or share your pain with any kind of loss.
“I know how you feel” The reality of things is that no one knows how another feels. At most, you might remember how you felt in a similar circumstance. It would be far better to share how you felt in that situation and then ask them how they are feeling. If you do not go first and make it safe for them to share their feelings, they may not be totally honest. This will let them better express what is going on in their mind and share those feelings and concerns with you.
Some final thoughts
Children respond to loss based on the example set by the adults around them. If they see you honestly expressing your emotions, they will know it is alright for them to do so as well. If they hear you talking about your grief in emotional terms, rather than trying to explain away your feelings intellectually, they will follow suit. It is up to you to tell them that grief is a normal and natural response to loss of any kind.
None of us like to see our children feeling sad. The problem is that no matter what you try to do or say to fix the situation, that person will still be dead. It is far better to let them know that sad feelings are part of being human, to listen to them and not analyze, criticize, or judge them for expressing these feelings, and to let them know that they are safe and loved.
You may find that purchasing a copy of “When Children Grieve” will be a very helpful tool, in not only helping you support your children through this experience, but in other grieving issues they will face throughout their lives.
European funeral traditions tend to be a bit different than those in North America. If that is where you reside, you may find this article about taking children to funerals, written by Carole Henderson, Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute in the United Kingdom, to be helpful.
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