FAQ: Children and Funerals

I know that this is no one’s favorite subject, but when a family member or friend dies, parents often feel unsure how to handle funerals, visitations, and memorials. They may worry about kids or teens feeling left out if they don’t attend, while also being concerned that a service may cause them even more upset. A lot of questions are raised surrounding this topic, and it’s not always easy to know the “right” answer.

Here are the most commonly-asked questions I receive in regards to funerals. I’ve answered these questions according to best practices for helping grieving children, as well as what I’ve seen work best for my clients. But I’ll also say that of course every child/teen/family is different, and there’s no “one size fits all” approach. What works for some families may not work for yours, and that’s okay.

Should my child attend the funeral or visitation? What if they’re very young?

In most cases, children should attend. Leaving them out of these events leaves them out of the normal family grieving process. If they’re 4 or older, they may later remember being left out while the rest of the family got to be together. However, if the child is very young and it’s not possible to have a supportive person (see next answer) sit with the child, it may be best for them to stay with someone else during the service so that you have space to grieve, too.

How can I support my child at a funeral if I’m grieving, too?

It’s often helpful for families to select an adult who can sit with the child and support them during the funeral or visitation. This person should be someone the child knows and is comfortable with, but is not as close to the death. If your child becomes overwhelmed, this person can provide comfort or take them outside for a break without you feeling distracted or pulled in different directions. The adult should also be made aware of any special needs or issues the child may have.

What if my child is older and refuses to go? Should I make them?

If they’re refusing, find out why. Some kids have preconceived notions of what will happen at the service that simply aren’t true, and you can clear up the confusion for them. Try offering them lots of choices (such as who they sit with, what comfort items they take with them, whether or not to view the body, etc) and see if that increases their comfort with attending. If they still refuse, it’s okay to support that decision.

Should my child view the body at the visitation or funeral?

It depends. In general, viewing the body helps children and teenagers to confirm the reality of the death, which dispels the idea that the person may return someday. If the deceased suffered from a long illness, it can be comforting to see them at peace (and looking better with makeup). However, a child or teen should never be forced or cajoled into viewing the body, nor should they be made to feel guilty if they’re scared or uncomfortable. It’s also not advised for children to view a body that was gravely physically injured unless restorative work has been done.

My child says they want to view the body. How can I prepare them?

  1. Let them know before the visitation what they’ll see. Explain in very concrete terms, like: “Grandma’s body will feel cold or hard. She will look like she’s asleep.” Answer all accompanying questions honestly. You don’t want to attempt to mislead, because they need to be able to make an informed decision.
  2. Consider having the child view the body privately, especially if they’re very young. They may ask questions or make innocent comments that could be upsetting for other mourners to overhear. A supportive adult who’s not too attached to the death can once again be helpful here.

Per the deceased’s wishes, we won’t be holding a funeral. How can I help my child say goodbye?

It’s becoming more and more common for people to believe that they “don’t need a funeral when they die.” Unfortunately, not having one can negatively impact those in mourning. Rituals like funerals and visitations are powerful because they offer support, comfort, and meaning for those who are still living. No funeral means there’s no “container” for those emotions, nor an opportunity for the family to receive support from loved ones.

If there’s no funeral (or if a child refuses to attend and then later regrets this), the family can memorialize the person in other ways. Here are some options:

  • light candles
  • play music
  • write letters (and/or read them aloud)
  • display photographs or mementos that remind of the deceased
  • draw pictures

Even children and teens who did attend a funeral may need to revisit the idea of memorialization as they enter new stages of development. This should be validated and encouraged – it’s NOT a sign that the child is regressing. It’s healthy and normal to revisit grief.

Our family member will be cremated. How do we explain this to the child?

I’ve created some wording aimed at very young children. You can edit this as needed for older kids, but remember honest and simple is best:

“When someone dies, all that’s left is their body. They can’t see, think, breathe, or feel anymore. The body starts to decompose, which means their skin and organs go away. All that’s left over is bones – just like dinosaurs at the museum. Cremation is when the body is put in a very hot room to help the skin go away faster. Then, the bones are made smaller and smaller until they’re like powder. The powder is placed in a special container.”

Few tips: 1. Let them know what additional words they might hear, such as “remains” and “urn.” 2. DO NOT say that the body is burned or set on fire. This is both upsetting and factually untrue.

I’ve heard it’s helpful to involve the child in funeral/memorial planning, but I’m not sure how to involve them

Some ideas for involving kids and teens:

  1. First, ask them if they’d like to contribute – often, they have ideas of their own!
  2. Coloring a picture or writing a letter to be placed in the casket or displayed in some way
  3. Holding the urn on the way to the ceremony or burial site
  4. Selecting photos for a slide show or picture board
  5. Picking music to be played at the service
  6. Singing a song or speaking at the service
  7. Handing out programs
  8. Helping the pall bearers
  9. Lighting a candle

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