Take them to a funeral? Yes, but....

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 25, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, We are the parents with 3 young boys ages 8,8 & 9. Our niece had a baby 5 months ago...she was born very sick and has just passed away. Our question is: should our young boys attend the funeral. They have no experience with death...but we have told them that their baby cousin has passed away. Thank you.

From: Lisa, San Antonio, TX

Hi Lisa,


More and more, experts encourage parents to include children in funerals because it’s a way for the children to be part of the family. So my answer is yes, but with a few caveats:

1. That they have a choice: They should go because they want to do, each, individually, not for any other reason, like, for instance, that they think you want them to go, or that if one of them is going the other needs to...

2.That each child will have the support of an adult. Because this will not be a funeral of someone they knew personally and had a loving relationship with, it likely will not be traumatic for them in terms of a sense of personal loss. However, it could be traumatic to see aunts, uncles, grandparents & parents crying and upset. They likely have not seen this before in these adults they love. So each needs an adult “assigned” to them – someone they trust who will be able to be emotionally removed and available to them, to answer questions and be supportive if they get upset.

3. That they know beforehand what to expect, esp if this is an open coffin. Walk them through what the service will be like, who will speak, etc. Let them know it’s OK to leave at any time with this assigned adult.

4. That there’s conversation about how this baby died. Children expect old people to die, they don’t expect a baby to die. That alone is upsetting for them. Without an explanation, they will apply magical thinking to the death, often some outlandish reason that is ego-centric and/or has nothing to do with the truth. So they need an age appropriate, truthful explanation for why this happened, for instance, “Sometimes a baby gets sick when it is being born and no matter how hard the doctors try, they can’t make the baby better. This is very very very very very very very rare.” (Obviously you need to plug in the truth, but no matter what that might be, the very very very rare part is important.)

5. That you give them the chance to ask questions.


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18 comments so far...
  1. Barbara I think I agree with most of what you have said except for thinking its okay for children to see an open casket, which more than likely will not be part of the funeral but rather the wake. I think the American Pediatrics Society suggests that even 10 might be too young. It's a tough image and can haunt children for a long time.

    We recently had a death in our family someone close to my son and I met with his teachers at school and spoke with his pediatrician and they both recommended to use language like very very or really really…phrases like that so other times when the children hear that someone is sick there is a distinction. They also both strongly urged to not have him part of the open casket part, but if he could be included in another ceremony that is important.

    Posted by anothermother May 25, 10 12:28 PM
  1. I agree except I wouldn't tell the kids its ok to leave at any time. 8 and 9 year old boys could just as easily find it boring and ask to leave because they don't feel like being there. I would tell the adult in charge to take them out if they are too distraught or so squirmy it becomes disrespectful.

    Posted by Cordelia May 25, 10 12:38 PM
  1. I don't think it's appropriate to give the children a choice. How can the child possibly know what a funeral is like, judge the pros and cons, and decide that? And how can they know if they are making a decision with pure motives, as Barbara says? They are too young to figure that out. Most likely they will make a choice that they will be sorry about later, regret it, and feel responsible. Going or not going are both hard! The parents have to make the decision based on the children's characters and how well they know the mother of the child who died. At least then the kids won't feel hung out to dry to make their own decision. The suggestion about having a adult dedicated to each child is good, though.
    As for our family, we are a pastor's family and so we have to deal with this question a lot since our church is large and has a lot of funerals. Our kids will go if they knew the person-- they are little now, so it has just been to go in for few minutes and sign the guest book. If they did not know the person, we don't even mention it. We have to be comfortable dealing with death & funerals.
    And, just to be fair it's important to consider the family of the deceased. Will they be at all comforted by seeing your whole family there? If so, that should have a bearing on your decision. Many times I have been told that seeing me there with the baby in the sling was comforting. (I would never stay in the service, though, if the baby or children were crying or making noise).

    Posted by Alyce T May 25, 10 01:38 PM
  1. Our baby just died and we had a lot of our kids' friends come to the funeral (ages 7 and 9). We were glad to see them and glad the parents brought them. Their presence also provided nice support to our other 2 kids, even though they weren't related to (or had even met) our baby who passed.

    Posted by Deb R May 25, 10 05:12 PM
  1. I'm sorry for your loss.

    I think Barbara is under-estimating the capacity for normal 8 and 9 year olds to understand the finality of death, and that sometimes babies are not born healthy and sometimes die.

    I agree that conversation is called for. Every attempt should be made to answer all their questions about death, grief, the associated rituals, and how and why their fragile baby cousin died.

    All that said, this is going to be a difficult funeral and I don't see it as being the appropriate venue for introducing your young boys to funeral rituals and the attendant sadness. The outpouring of grief will be overwhelming even to the stoic. I really think it's asking too much to have them sit through a service and be present at the burial. In fact, I squirm at the idea of them attending this particular wake/shiva as well.

    But only you know if your boys are mature enough to maintain the required decorum for the length of time involved. If your boys express the desire to participate, and you believe their aunt and uncle will be comforted by having them there, I recommend they attend the service only, provided it isn't held at the grave site.

    Otherwise, help them compose a loving condolence message to their aunt and uncle. If they spent any time with the baby, they can say how much they already miss him/her. Later, have them accompany you when you make the follow-up condolence visit. And of course prepare them for what this visit will be like.



    Posted by Sherry Lane May 26, 10 02:20 AM
  1. When I was in the fifth grade my 2 1/2 year old brother died from a numerous things, the main being leukemia. The casket was open and I wish I could have stayed home. I am now 57 and to this day I avoid wakes and funerals wenever I can.

    Posted by sophie08 May 26, 10 06:33 AM
  1. The only thing I could suggest is to think of the grieving parents. Think of how your particular children may act, and if it will upset anybody further, or will their presence be appreciated.

    Posted by lala May 26, 10 07:16 AM
  1. I don't know that I would take children this age to a funeral of a child that young. Obviously, you need to deal with the death in an open, honest way, as Barbara suggests, but I think its more the way other people are going to be reacting and if the parent can deal with their own grief, and the child's grief and dismay and potential fear. The other thing you always have to deal with is what others are going to say to your child about the death and if you will have an ability to control and deal with it appropriately. It almost seems like a child should have the opportunity to "practice" first on an "easier" funeral.

    I think its also important to consider what the child is going to get out of this experience. It seems kind of unnecessary.

    Posted by ash May 26, 10 08:46 AM
  1. I disagree with this one. I am assuming that the children did not have a chance to bond with their 2nd cousin who was ill since birth. If that is the case, I would leave the kids home. The focus should be on the grieving parents and immediate family given the terrible situation of burying a child. The children can make cards, plant a tree, attend the gathering afterwards and/or make their own visit to the grave site at a later time.

    Posted by Patricia May 26, 10 09:14 AM
  1. and... talk with your funeral director. They have a vast amount of experience and resources.

    Posted by Karen May 26, 10 10:02 AM
  1. I would never expect children to attend a wake or funeral for anyone except their own parents or siblings. My first funeral service was at the age of 10 for someone I wasn't very close to. If I had been "assigned" an adult, I would have left out of sheer boredom (and it's not fair to the adult since they may want to stay). I didn't attend another funeral until I was sixteen.

    I agree with the above poster that you cannot control what people may say to your child at the service. All you need is one aunt recalling the deaths of all the children in her family after you assured your child this instance was very, very, very rare. Many people may ask your children if they will miss their cousin. How will it look if they give the less than diplomatic answer of "well not really, we never even met her". Funerals are stressful enough without worrying about your kids.

    Posted by Silver May 26, 10 10:55 AM
  1. I have taken perhaps a several dozen kids between 4 and 10 to funerals of their mother, grandparent, friend's parent ...They are all now over 30 and glad they went. I know half a dozen adults, now over 60, who as kids who were between 5 and 11 and prevented from going to their father's/uncle's funeral. To this day, the closer the relationship, the greater the anger they feel about not being able to go.

    My experience is at 4 to 7 year olds behave very grown up. They want to help comfort the people with the closest relationship. Tears increase with age. Children seem to be a help to other children. It is a family choice, I think.

    Posted by HG May 26, 10 12:32 PM
  1. I have taken perhaps a several dozen kids between 4 and 10 to funerals of their mother, grandparent, friend's parent ...They are all now over 30 and glad they went. I know half a dozen adults, now over 60, who as kids who were between 5 and 11 and prevented from going to their father's/uncle's funeral. To this day, the closer the relationship, the greater the anger they feel about not being able to go.

    My experience is at 4 to 7 year olds behave very grown up. They want to help comfort the people with the closest relationship. Tears increase with age. Children seem to be a help to other children. It is a family choice, I think.

    Posted by HG May 26, 10 12:32 PM
  1. In other cultures it is the norm for children to go to wakes and funerals. I went to several as a child, and my daughter has been to several.

    I also suggest that rather than saying the deceased was "sick" that the parent refer to the illness as something else to differentiate between sick as in having a cold, versus a terminal illness. (In our house, we call it a "special kind of sick".) This way the child won't unduly worry the next time they, or a friend or loved one, gets sick.

    Posted by HollyP May 26, 10 04:39 PM
  1. Our six year old attended a portion of her grandfather's open casket wake and the funeral the next day. Our rationale was that the way to learn to grieve and bring closure to the relationship was with her family. We described what she would see, what others would be doing and what was expected of her. It was a learning experience and because of how she was prepared and supported throughout, an honest emotional experience. Children must learn the rituals that mark life events in their family so that they understand that these are a normal part of life and not traumatized by a seeming taboo by not being allowed to participate and experience natural human emotions.

    Posted by Mike May 26, 10 09:44 PM
  1. A funeral for an infant is quite different from a funeral for a mother, grandparent, friend's parent etc. This funeral is all about the parents. If their young nephews will be of comfort for them they should attend the service, provided they want to and the LW is confident they can cope. Otherwise no way should they go.

    Posted by Joanna Dark May 26, 10 11:28 PM
  1. When my uncle died last year it never occurred to me not to bring my children, 6 and 2, to his funeral -- we were all very close to him and they had seen him very sick in the hospital. A kind family friend did come to the funeral with us just so that she could be available for them during the funeral, and as it turned out our two year old spent the entire funeral playing in the basement with her, which was fine. Both came to the grave and threw in dirt, both came to the reception afterward and to the shiva. Jews don't do open casket, which helps. But honestly, this whole idea about protecting children from death is so modern America it's amazing. Never before in the history of the universe have humans been able to so successfully hide from the reality of death; and yet we still ALL DIE.

    I honestly think we owe it to our children to include them in the rituals of death, whether the death is that of an old person who has had a good life, a baby who has had very little life at all, a parent who has died in a car accident, a soldier who has died in a war.... This is reality, people, and encounters with death help us remember what is truly important in life.

    Posted by amyn May 27, 10 07:25 AM
  1. Agree with amyn. We shouldn't try to protect kids from reality, just because it's painful. And of course kids worry about dying--we all do. That's how God was invented. Sounds like the fact that Lisa was even asking the question means she's a thoughtful mother that will say the right thing to her kids. Condolences to the family.

    Posted by a mom of 2 May 27, 10 10:51 AM
 
18 comments so far...
  1. Barbara I think I agree with most of what you have said except for thinking its okay for children to see an open casket, which more than likely will not be part of the funeral but rather the wake. I think the American Pediatrics Society suggests that even 10 might be too young. It's a tough image and can haunt children for a long time.

    We recently had a death in our family someone close to my son and I met with his teachers at school and spoke with his pediatrician and they both recommended to use language like very very or really really…phrases like that so other times when the children hear that someone is sick there is a distinction. They also both strongly urged to not have him part of the open casket part, but if he could be included in another ceremony that is important.

    Posted by anothermother May 25, 10 12:28 PM
  1. I agree except I wouldn't tell the kids its ok to leave at any time. 8 and 9 year old boys could just as easily find it boring and ask to leave because they don't feel like being there. I would tell the adult in charge to take them out if they are too distraught or so squirmy it becomes disrespectful.

    Posted by Cordelia May 25, 10 12:38 PM
  1. I don't think it's appropriate to give the children a choice. How can the child possibly know what a funeral is like, judge the pros and cons, and decide that? And how can they know if they are making a decision with pure motives, as Barbara says? They are too young to figure that out. Most likely they will make a choice that they will be sorry about later, regret it, and feel responsible. Going or not going are both hard! The parents have to make the decision based on the children's characters and how well they know the mother of the child who died. At least then the kids won't feel hung out to dry to make their own decision. The suggestion about having a adult dedicated to each child is good, though.
    As for our family, we are a pastor's family and so we have to deal with this question a lot since our church is large and has a lot of funerals. Our kids will go if they knew the person-- they are little now, so it has just been to go in for few minutes and sign the guest book. If they did not know the person, we don't even mention it. We have to be comfortable dealing with death & funerals.
    And, just to be fair it's important to consider the family of the deceased. Will they be at all comforted by seeing your whole family there? If so, that should have a bearing on your decision. Many times I have been told that seeing me there with the baby in the sling was comforting. (I would never stay in the service, though, if the baby or children were crying or making noise).

    Posted by Alyce T May 25, 10 01:38 PM
  1. Our baby just died and we had a lot of our kids' friends come to the funeral (ages 7 and 9). We were glad to see them and glad the parents brought them. Their presence also provided nice support to our other 2 kids, even though they weren't related to (or had even met) our baby who passed.

    Posted by Deb R May 25, 10 05:12 PM
  1. I'm sorry for your loss.

    I think Barbara is under-estimating the capacity for normal 8 and 9 year olds to understand the finality of death, and that sometimes babies are not born healthy and sometimes die.

    I agree that conversation is called for. Every attempt should be made to answer all their questions about death, grief, the associated rituals, and how and why their fragile baby cousin died.

    All that said, this is going to be a difficult funeral and I don't see it as being the appropriate venue for introducing your young boys to funeral rituals and the attendant sadness. The outpouring of grief will be overwhelming even to the stoic. I really think it's asking too much to have them sit through a service and be present at the burial. In fact, I squirm at the idea of them attending this particular wake/shiva as well.

    But only you know if your boys are mature enough to maintain the required decorum for the length of time involved. If your boys express the desire to participate, and you believe their aunt and uncle will be comforted by having them there, I recommend they attend the service only, provided it isn't held at the grave site.

    Otherwise, help them compose a loving condolence message to their aunt and uncle. If they spent any time with the baby, they can say how much they already miss him/her. Later, have them accompany you when you make the follow-up condolence visit. And of course prepare them for what this visit will be like.



    Posted by Sherry Lane May 26, 10 02:20 AM
  1. When I was in the fifth grade my 2 1/2 year old brother died from a numerous things, the main being leukemia. The casket was open and I wish I could have stayed home. I am now 57 and to this day I avoid wakes and funerals wenever I can.

    Posted by sophie08 May 26, 10 06:33 AM
  1. The only thing I could suggest is to think of the grieving parents. Think of how your particular children may act, and if it will upset anybody further, or will their presence be appreciated.

    Posted by lala May 26, 10 07:16 AM
  1. I don't know that I would take children this age to a funeral of a child that young. Obviously, you need to deal with the death in an open, honest way, as Barbara suggests, but I think its more the way other people are going to be reacting and if the parent can deal with their own grief, and the child's grief and dismay and potential fear. The other thing you always have to deal with is what others are going to say to your child about the death and if you will have an ability to control and deal with it appropriately. It almost seems like a child should have the opportunity to "practice" first on an "easier" funeral.

    I think its also important to consider what the child is going to get out of this experience. It seems kind of unnecessary.

    Posted by ash May 26, 10 08:46 AM
  1. I disagree with this one. I am assuming that the children did not have a chance to bond with their 2nd cousin who was ill since birth. If that is the case, I would leave the kids home. The focus should be on the grieving parents and immediate family given the terrible situation of burying a child. The children can make cards, plant a tree, attend the gathering afterwards and/or make their own visit to the grave site at a later time.

    Posted by Patricia May 26, 10 09:14 AM
  1. and... talk with your funeral director. They have a vast amount of experience and resources.

    Posted by Karen May 26, 10 10:02 AM
  1. I would never expect children to attend a wake or funeral for anyone except their own parents or siblings. My first funeral service was at the age of 10 for someone I wasn't very close to. If I had been "assigned" an adult, I would have left out of sheer boredom (and it's not fair to the adult since they may want to stay). I didn't attend another funeral until I was sixteen.

    I agree with the above poster that you cannot control what people may say to your child at the service. All you need is one aunt recalling the deaths of all the children in her family after you assured your child this instance was very, very, very rare. Many people may ask your children if they will miss their cousin. How will it look if they give the less than diplomatic answer of "well not really, we never even met her". Funerals are stressful enough without worrying about your kids.

    Posted by Silver May 26, 10 10:55 AM
  1. I have taken perhaps a several dozen kids between 4 and 10 to funerals of their mother, grandparent, friend's parent ...They are all now over 30 and glad they went. I know half a dozen adults, now over 60, who as kids who were between 5 and 11 and prevented from going to their father's/uncle's funeral. To this day, the closer the relationship, the greater the anger they feel about not being able to go.

    My experience is at 4 to 7 year olds behave very grown up. They want to help comfort the people with the closest relationship. Tears increase with age. Children seem to be a help to other children. It is a family choice, I think.

    Posted by HG May 26, 10 12:32 PM
  1. I have taken perhaps a several dozen kids between 4 and 10 to funerals of their mother, grandparent, friend's parent ...They are all now over 30 and glad they went. I know half a dozen adults, now over 60, who as kids who were between 5 and 11 and prevented from going to their father's/uncle's funeral. To this day, the closer the relationship, the greater the anger they feel about not being able to go.

    My experience is at 4 to 7 year olds behave very grown up. They want to help comfort the people with the closest relationship. Tears increase with age. Children seem to be a help to other children. It is a family choice, I think.

    Posted by HG May 26, 10 12:32 PM
  1. In other cultures it is the norm for children to go to wakes and funerals. I went to several as a child, and my daughter has been to several.

    I also suggest that rather than saying the deceased was "sick" that the parent refer to the illness as something else to differentiate between sick as in having a cold, versus a terminal illness. (In our house, we call it a "special kind of sick".) This way the child won't unduly worry the next time they, or a friend or loved one, gets sick.

    Posted by HollyP May 26, 10 04:39 PM
  1. Our six year old attended a portion of her grandfather's open casket wake and the funeral the next day. Our rationale was that the way to learn to grieve and bring closure to the relationship was with her family. We described what she would see, what others would be doing and what was expected of her. It was a learning experience and because of how she was prepared and supported throughout, an honest emotional experience. Children must learn the rituals that mark life events in their family so that they understand that these are a normal part of life and not traumatized by a seeming taboo by not being allowed to participate and experience natural human emotions.

    Posted by Mike May 26, 10 09:44 PM
  1. A funeral for an infant is quite different from a funeral for a mother, grandparent, friend's parent etc. This funeral is all about the parents. If their young nephews will be of comfort for them they should attend the service, provided they want to and the LW is confident they can cope. Otherwise no way should they go.

    Posted by Joanna Dark May 26, 10 11:28 PM
  1. When my uncle died last year it never occurred to me not to bring my children, 6 and 2, to his funeral -- we were all very close to him and they had seen him very sick in the hospital. A kind family friend did come to the funeral with us just so that she could be available for them during the funeral, and as it turned out our two year old spent the entire funeral playing in the basement with her, which was fine. Both came to the grave and threw in dirt, both came to the reception afterward and to the shiva. Jews don't do open casket, which helps. But honestly, this whole idea about protecting children from death is so modern America it's amazing. Never before in the history of the universe have humans been able to so successfully hide from the reality of death; and yet we still ALL DIE.

    I honestly think we owe it to our children to include them in the rituals of death, whether the death is that of an old person who has had a good life, a baby who has had very little life at all, a parent who has died in a car accident, a soldier who has died in a war.... This is reality, people, and encounters with death help us remember what is truly important in life.

    Posted by amyn May 27, 10 07:25 AM
  1. Agree with amyn. We shouldn't try to protect kids from reality, just because it's painful. And of course kids worry about dying--we all do. That's how God was invented. Sounds like the fact that Lisa was even asking the question means she's a thoughtful mother that will say the right thing to her kids. Condolences to the family.

    Posted by a mom of 2 May 27, 10 10:51 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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