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Children & Funerals: 5 Ways to Support

How to help children manage funerals

Helping your child understand and emotionally deal with funerals is about helping your child navigate the turning points in life. For children who have never had to deal with funerals and death of a loved one or family member, this can understandably create anxiety and sadness. As a parent you are helping your children with two overlapping concerns. One is that of closure – helping them deal with their own grief – the other of their coping with the finality of death.

Funerals provide a structured ritual that can help with both of these concerns, but obviously your children will have different reactions not only because of their differing understanding about death, but because of their different relationships to the deceased. Helping them deal with the death of an older uncle they only met once or not at all is very different than dealing with the loss of their grandmother who they were extremely attached to.

Here are some suggested guidelines from various experts that span the different ages:

Never force your children to attend a funeral. What you want to focus on instead is why they don’t want to attend; their reluctance to attend is sign of their underlying anxiety.

Talk to them about the funeral process to allay their fears. Here you describe what they may see – people crying because they are sad, an open casket. Talk to them in their language. If they experienced a loss of pet, for example, ask what they remember and felt about that and how this may be different. Say that grandma may look like she is sleeping but her chest will not move because she is not breathing. If they touch grandma she may feel cold and her hand will fill hard. (You should never force a child to touch the body or even stand next to the casket if they don’t want to.) Describe the ceremony itself – the saying of prayers, perhaps, or the memorial service, or the rituals at the cemetery.

Young children have a difficult understanding cremation and you need to emphasize that while the body is burned the person will not feel any pain because they are no longer alive.If they decide to attend the funeral, let them set the pace. Stay close to them or have someone they are comfortable stay with them. Ask if they are okay, and then ask if they would like to go up to the casket or touch the body, and if not, that’s fine.

Help them find their own closure. If your child doesn’t attend the funeral or stays removed, find other ways of providing closure. Maybe they want to make a picture that you can place in the casket. Maybe you both want to make your own trip to the cemetery later and place flowers on the grave, or can sit together and write up together a list of good memories about grandma. Make suggestions but again let your child take the lead.

Help your children understand about your own reactions. To see their mom crying is both healthy and provides good modeling about the grief process, but obviously arouses their anxiety. Let them know that you sometimes feel sad because you miss grandma but it will pass, you are okay and they don’t need to worry about you. Helping them see how you handle your own grief will help them deal with their own.

Check in, follow up. If your child attends the funeral, debrief -- let them talk about how they felt, answer any questions they may have. Check in with them periodically over the next days and weeks by raising the topic in a gentle yet casual tone: Are you still feeling sad about grandma? Are you missing her? Even if your child says no or seems to sidestep the question, you are letting him know that it is something that he can talk about.

You are letting him understand the landscape of grief.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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