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“Should children go to funerals – and at what age are they old enough?” A generation or so ago, it’s a question that many people may not have given a second thought; funerals were often considered to be solemn occasions too formal or grown-up for children to attend.
Today, most experts suggest that it’s a decision best left to the child. As American grief counsellor Dr Alan Wolfelt says: “If they are old enough to love, then they are old enough to grieve.”
Fears vs regrets
Australia’s Association of Independent Funeral Directors says that being given the chance to say goodbye to someone at their funeral can be important for children. Child bereavement charities say that few if any kids who attend a loved one’s funeral grow up to regret having been there.
Even children who are too young to be likely to remember attending a loved one’s funeral can grow up to appreciate the fact that they were there. Too often, kids can feel like ‘forgotten mourners’, says The Dougy Center, a hub for grieving children and their families based in the United States.
Once a child is old enough to understand, it’s up to adults to furnish them with enough age-appropriate information so that they can learn why we have funerals and what to expect.
When you are talking to a child about attending a funeral, they may also have many questions about death and what happens to a person when they die. There are many wonderful age-appropriate children’s books that cover this topic in engaging and sensitive ways.
If attending a funeral is something they decide that they are not ready for, then that’s okay. A child should never be pressured to attend a funeral or wake against their wishes and it’s important for them to understand what to expect.
Talking about the funeral
Make time for a conversation with them about the who, where, what, when and whys of the funeral and what they can expect to happen on the day.
Among the things to talk about, is what it means when someone dies. Experts agree that when explaining death to a child, it’s important to be mindful, but frank – and avoid euphemistic phrases like “gone to sleep”, which could put the fear-factor into daily routines such as bedtime.
You can explain why a funeral happens and how it is a chance for people to say goodbye. It may come as a surprise to see grown-ups crying. People might smile, too, about things that are said about the person who died. Some people call funerals ‘a celebration of life’: What special things will your child remember about the person whose funeral it is?
Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital says that parents who lose a child sometimes struggle over whether to include their other children in the funeral service. It suggests that a close relative or good family friend helps care for siblings during the funeral service.
Playing a part in the funeral service
Children may also like to be involved in the service, from drawing a picture or writing a poem for the order of service, to lighting a candle, singing a funeral hymn or song, or reading a lesson.
If the person who has died was not a close family member, it is considerate to ask whoever is looking after the funeral arrangements if they’d be happy for your kids to attend the funeral. This is a time for the bereaved to remember their loved one the way that they wish, so try not to take offence if the invitation doesn’t extend to your little ones.
You may have told your kids that during a funeral, people are quiet and sit very still, because some people will be feeling very sad. It’s sensible to come prepared with books, ‘fidget’ toys and other quiet distractions though – time passes a lot slower when you are a child, especially during solemn occasions. Don’t feel like your child has to stick it out through the entire funeral ceremony, if it all gets too much.