Rehearsals for Life

Funerals are for the living—children included.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

Frequently and purposely, we provide our children with opportunities to practice the skills they will need throughout their lives. Especially if our kids have developmental delays such as autism or sensory processing disorder, we know the importance of practice, practice, practice.

For instance, we invite children to stir the pancake batter so they’ll get a sensory-motor feel for cooking. We give them a lesson in making change for a dollar to promote math skills, and we provide a piggy bank to develop eye-hand coordination and experience with money. We go over scenarios for shaking hands with a neighbor, saying, “please,” “thank you,” and asking, “May I pet your dog?” or “May I play, too?” to reinforce social skills. 

To teach children what to do and how to behave under a variety of circumstances, practice makes perfect sense.

In The Light Photography/Shutterstock
Source: In The Light Photography/Shutterstock

However, the funeral—one of life’s inevitable events—usually goes unrehearsed. Because we often live apart from “significant elders,” many children have scant eyewitness experience with dying and death. Indeed, we often spare our kids the intensity of grief—theirs, ours, or others’—believing that we are doing them a favor. 

What happens, though, is that when someone dies who really matters—such as a beloved grandparent—our children are suddenly required to act in a drama that they have never rehearsed. How much better would it be if we could teach about death when it touches, but before it crushes, our children?

When a pet or distant great-uncle dies, children want information about the death, just as they seek information about the birth of a sibling, the move to a new house, or any other noteworthy event.  Whether their questions are born of existential fear or lively curiosity, children require five things: 

1. Honest explanations

Explain to your child, “Cinnamon died because he was very old [very sick, badly hurt]. Every living thing dies someday.”

2. Solid reassurance

Reassure your child. “Even though you and I will die someday, we will both probably live for a long, long time. And when we die, people will remember us, just as we will always remember Cinnamon.”

3. The “okay” to express their emotions

Show that it is appropriate to be emotional. “I know you are sad [angry, scared]. Being sad means that you liked him and will miss him. I am crying because I am sad, too. It’s okay to be sad.” 

Remember, dealing with strong emotions can be extremely challenging for children with developmental delays. A child with SPD, for example, may giggle because she misreads social cues and doesn’t know how she is expected to behave. She laughs to lessen her stress—not to be rude.

4. The chance to do something

Let children act. We can involve them in rituals in a positive way and make them feel needed. When a pet dies, for example, parents at home and teachers at school (if class pets are permitted) can stage a short ceremony that includes children’s comments, songs, or drawings.

5. A sense of belonging

Give children a sense of community. We can include them when we go to the veterinarian with a dying pet to be put down or a dead pet to be cremated. We can let children attend a funeral or memorial service for a person they have known. Memorial services are not all gloomy; rather, they bring feelings of resolution and restitution. The standing up and the sitting down, the music and the singing, and the cadence of the service—with its beginning, middle, and end—can be cathartic. Being together is comforting—and at such a solemn moment, we need our kids beside us just as much as they need us.

Mister Rogers sang, “I like to be told if it’s going to hurt.” Children, too, like to know what to expect and what is expected of them. Before they can learn to say goodbye to a loved one, we need to give them the lines. Rehearsing funerals—and talking about death honestly—provides children with know-how that will ease their bewildering sorrow later, when they need all the comfort they can get.