This past week a book group I belonged to read a book that led into a discussion of how death was dealt with in our own families as we were growing up. We recalled that as children we were usually not part of any family rituals when a family member died. Most of us grew up in homes where our parents felt that children had to be sheltered from this aspect of life. This meant that children did not go to funerals, and death was rarely talked about in the house.. When my grandmother died, I was an adult living in another city. My mother called me and wondered if I needed to come home? She was still trying to protect me.
My experience with death was such that,in 1966 when I was offered the opportunity to work with the widowed, I almost refused. What convinced me to work on this project was the opportunity to get a secretary who would type my dissertation. This was before computers were available and any correction might involve retyping large portions of the work. In spite of my reluctance about work related to dying, this was enough of a reason to take the job.
In the late 1970's a friend wrote an article for a local newspaper arguing that children did not belong at funerals. It was well received and reflected the practice in many communities in the greater Boston area. By then I was involved with the Widow-to-Widow program and had dealt with my own fear that involved closing my eyes when I went by cemeteries, and feeling very frightened by the place . I could now question the certainty that was reflected in the article.
For me the discussion, in the book group, led me to ask if being more familiar with the fact that people die and with the rituals that follow a death, such as a funeral, makes it any easier for a family when a death occurs. I was particularly interested in what effect being familiar with burial rituals might have if there were dependent children at home. At the book group, I was the only one in the room whose work was related to this topic.
My thinking went back to the MGH/Harvard Child Bereavement study. I was co-principal investigator and project director. We had interviewed 70 families where a parent had died. There were 125 children between the ages of 6 and 17 in these families. Ninety-five percent of these children went to their parent's funeral. We did not ask what their prior experience had been with death or with funerals. These children, reflecting on their participation several months later, felt than it was important that they were there to honor their parent and to say good-bye. Their surviving parent respected their wishes.
A colleague from Florida, seeing these statistics said that this would not be true in Florida. In a similar situation the children, even teen-agers, would not go to the funeral. I can only hope that this is not true there today.
As a wrote this blog I began to think about what we learned from the Child Bereavement study. Going to the funeral has several parts to it. Most of the younger children went to the religious service but not to the cemetery. Robert Fulton said that through out history funerals have meet the needs of adult mourners to acknowledge the death, honor the life of the deceased, and provide social support and comfort.
I found a paper my colleague Bill Worden and I wrote reporting on these children's experience over the 2 years that we were interviewing them .The children's responses two years after the death indicated that the funeral met the same needs as those of adults. Younger children under the age of 8 at the time of the death often did not know what to call the "box" their parent was lying in. They talked about nice people who were there to help but did not know what to call these people who worked at the funeral home. By the time they were all interviewed, two years later, most ofl the children could reflect on the ceremony and talk about it with a more mature understanding. In their own way, they knew by then , that it was important that they had been there to show respect for their parent, to see them one last time and that being there helped them to accept the death. The older children were able to articulate this more clearly than the younger ones but the basic message was the same.
One thirteen year old wanted the funeral to be in a place that reminded her more of her father. He loved to hike in the mountains and she thought that setting would have been more suited to help remember him and who he was. Some children wanted the color black to dominate, reflecting their sadness. Others preferred bright colors at the funeral to help remember the "good things" about their parent. They were pleased that there were many people at the funeral who cared for their parent. They talked about the importance of remembering , celebrating their parent's memory and mourning together. The funeral helped them do that. A 10 year old girl remembered "when I was crying at the end my little cousin came up to me and gave me a hug and said it was ok. She was only three." One teen age boy said the purpose of a funeral was to get everyone feeling ok about the death. Anybody who wants to can come. It is for children too. A way for little kids to understand people have a life on earth, but they die. Maybe bring religion into it but don't bring in hell because it might scare the kids." A teen age girl whose mother had died said," Everyone gave me support. I felt better because all the people were there."
In this blog I have come a long way from my book groups discussion But what we learn from children is that the funeral plays an important role in their mourning , and helps them see death as a fact of life.