Should my child attend a funeral?

Funerals are an important part of the grieving process. They offer us a safe, structured and contained way to grieve, let go and begin to move on. But the decision about whether or not to include children in this is one many people find difficult.

We’ve asked Child Psychotherapist, Sarah Clarke to offer her advice.

Children need to feel they have a choice about whether or not they attend the funeral of a loved one. However, many parents still have concerns about whether it is appropriate for children to go along. Here are some of the most common concerns.

I am worried it will be too upsetting for them.

I would begin by asking you to define “too upsetting”. Yes, it will be an emotional day but emotions are important and allowing them to be explored, demonstrated and managed is the key to managing grief. Your child may be sad but sadness is natural and important. “What we resist, persists”. If sadness is allowed to come out, it can be managed and let go of. If it is not, if it is kept locked down and trapped inside and can then show itself either now or many years later in everything from night terrors, to bed wetting, to fighting, self harm or eating disorders to name but a few.

I am worried they will be scared.

Death, as a concept, can be scary and many of us are frightened by the idea. However, the concept of death is a very abstract one and many children will not have the ability to fully understand it until the age of about 7.

What does scare young children is uncertainty. As funerals are not usually discussed as part of every day life children don’t know much, if anything about them. Talk them through, step-by-step, everything that will happen on the day and give them lots of space to ask questions as you go along. You may be surprised by these. My 11 year old wanted to know if the body would be cremated clothed or naked. My 8 year old wanted to know if she would have to watch this happen “like Guy Fawkes”. Questions may be shocking, upsetting, funny or seemingly inappropriate but they will be important to the child and should be treated as such.

I am worried I won’t know how to answer their questions.

In both my work and my role as a Mum I tend to answer most questions with “that’s an interesting question, what do you think?”. Their answers give me a sense of where they are coming from and where to take the conversation.

Children are extremely good at managing their own levels of understanding so if we are led by them we will be more helpful.

Children sometimes need permission to go deeper so when it appears they have finished “Is there anything else you’d like to know now? Remember we can come back to this as many times as you need to.”

I am worried they will misbehave.

In all my years as a teacher and a parent I have never failed to be impressed at the way children are capable of “pulling it out of the bag” when required. As long as they are prepared, their questions have been answered in advance and their needs met, have every confidence that your child will rise to the occasion.

I am worried about what will happen when I get upset.

This is a common one and I wonder why adults are so nervous about showing children their emotions when children so freely show us theirs? There is a very high probability the adults at a funeral will cry. Crying is a normal part of everyday life for children and the fact that grownups are crying because they are sad will neither shock nor scare a child. It also gives permission for them to do the same.

A little boy who recently suffered the loss of his baby brother told me “I’m not allowed to cry. Everyone tells me I have to be brave. I don’t want to be brave, I want to be sad because I miss him. I don’t understand why everyone else is being brave – don’t they miss him too?”

If you cry at the funeral, it is highly likely that your child will comfort you. Children learn what they live and if you have comforted them in sadness, this is what they will give back to you. And this is not only OK it is a wonderful lesson for them to have learned.