“At what age should a child attend a funeral? I think my six-year-old son is too young to go to his grandmother’s funeral and will be traumatized by the event. My husband thinks he will be fine and feels it is appropriate that he go. What’s the best way to handle this situation?”
Unfortunately, there is no steadfast rule on the best age for a child to attend a funeral. Parents often have different viewpoints about when a child is ready for this type of experience. A funeral may be the first time that parents teach their children about grief and the religious traditions and rituals that surround death. Your first consideration in this matter is to think about how to share this type of information in an age appropriate way. Here are some suggestions for handling your child’s first end-of-life experience:
Use specific language. Although you may want to “soften” the way you tell your child that someone has died, saying phrases like “Grandma passed away” or “Grandma went to Heaven” can actually be confusing for very young children who tend to think in very concrete terms. Stating simply that “Grandma died” can help the child define the situation in an immediate way. Undoubtedly, questions will follow. How did she die? Where is she now? Why did that happen? Being able to answer as simply and directly as possible will help your child through the grief process. Here are some examples of possible answers to these questions:
How did she die? Grandma’s body stopped working.
Where is she now? Her body is in the funeral home, but her soul goes to Heaven.
Why did that happen? Sometimes, we don’t know why a person dies.
Reassure your child. When a family member or another person dies, many children worry about their own safety or the safety of their parents. Let your child know that he or she is safe and will always be taken care of. Remind them they are healthy and so are their mom and dad.
Understand that children grieve in different ways. Sometimes allowing children to attend all the events of a funeral (visitations, burial services, etc.) can actually help them process what happens when someone dies. If this is something you choose to do, assign an adult who is not intimately involved with the deceased to be with the child during all the various parts of the service so they can monitor how the child is coping and be ready to allow him or her to disengage if necessary. Kids react to grief in many ways. Some may cry or feel unsafe because they see others are in distress. Many young children need space to “play out their grief” since they don’t yet have an advanced “feelings” vocabulary to articulate what they are experiencing and will need to process their intense emotions through play instead. Allow them the flexibility and space to do this if necessary.
If there is an open casket, many children will be curious about what their loved one looks like or “what happens next.” Assure them that the person is not cold, hungry or in any pain. Be careful not to equate dying with sleeping. This idea may create anxiety for kids who worry they or others may never wake up if they go to sleep. If the child does not want to view the body, respect their feelings and don’t require him or her to do so.
Above all else, be patient and sensitive to your child during this difficult time. Expect and allow questions for several days or weeks afterward. For many children, death can be a confusing concept. One day, they may seem to understand that Grandma has died and is gone, and the next day ask if she is coming to their birthday party. It will take some time for them to fully understand the permanency of death. By being open to discussing their feelings and questions on the subject, you will be showing them that death is a part of life, and something that we all can get through with the support of those around us.
Stephanie Lowe-Sagebiel is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with Centerpoint Counseling and Baume Psychological Services and has nearly twenty years of experience helping adults, teens and children develop healthy skills to manage life’s challenges.
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