Funerals are for children if they want them to be.
IF THEY WANT TO …YES! ABSOLUTELY! DEFINITELY! DO NOT HESITATE!
Children, teddies, pets and balloons at funerals! ALWAYS!
TO BE ABSOLUTELY CLEAR
YES, IF THEY WANT TO….LET THEM and then let them tell you if they’ve had enough.
“Should we let the children to the funeral?” It is a question I am rarely asked. Even as a very experienced Funeral Professional. People make their own decisions and my opinion is never sought because people generally think they know what is right for their child and I trust that, but children also know what is right for them too. It is also the case that I know a lot about it and people who don’t work in the field of death and dying often don’t. Why would they?
Ideas and suggestions for approaching funerals with children
RESOURCES FOR CHILDREN AROUND FUNERALS
So, I for one am grateful that the question that is often on people’s lips around funerals is being asked very publicly and I thought it would be nice to take opportunity to offer my own perspective and offer you an amazing resource: WINSTON’S WISH
WINSTON’S WISH is a charity dedicated to helping grieving children and it has everything you need to know. Expert advice about preparing children and giving them to choice to stop watching if they feel overwhelmed.
YOUR CHILD KNOWS WHAT TO DO….TRUST THEM…LEARN FROM THEM
Having worked in the field of Death and Dying since my early 20s on and off until now and having lived through a great deal of bereavement, and read a lot about it, I can confidently say that the science, the extensive research over decades, all suggest that unless you have really good evidence or knowledge that your child will not cope with it….you should absolutely make sure that they are invited and feel welcome and have the freedom to choose whether they want to be present or not.
Explain what the child is saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to…
Inviting a child to choose whether they want to attend is a great idea, but making clear what it is that they are making a decision about is also vital…because otherwise they might be saying ‘no’ to something they’ve only ever seen on Eastenders or ‘yes’ to something they’ve only seen as the death of a Queen.
Media representation of Funerals, especially now, with the Queen’s State Funeral suddenly a model of ‘a proper send off’ for people who don’t know any different…is often really not representative at all. The Queen’s funeral is unlike anything you will ever see again, until there is another Royal death.
Unfortunately (in my opinion) most of the Funeral Profession is built upon a Victorian model of public, ritual mourning borrowed from Victorian Royal State funerals and social mores. This is why we have ‘top hats and tails’ and (almost always men..it is a male dominated ‘industry’), dressed in 3 piece woollen suits in the height of Summer driving black limos.
It has it’s place for ‘die-hard’ (see what I did there) traditionalists but it sure as ‘hell’ (I know…funny) isn’t right for everybody.
There is something adorable about horses and carriages at funerals. I love them, and for some, culturally, formality and tradition and wearing black is The ONLY way to show respect. But there is room for difference. Children need to know what ‘funeral’ or ‘celebration of life’ is likely to be for them before they are invited to make a decision.
If a funeral is not for your child, involve them in other ways
I always talk to children beforehand about what to expect and ask what they know. Especially if it is their parent, I always involve them with every decision if I have permission to do so. Unfortunately not everyone likes to involve their children in these decisions as they want to protect them. I would advise against this. As parents, 99.9% of you want what is best for your children and act according to your own instincts within the limitations of your knowledge of these situations. There is no judgment here, but I would like to raise awareness a little.
You will struggle to find many professionals in the area of Death and Dying who will say ‘don’t invite the children’ to a funeral full stop. “They might say it depends upon the child and be led by them” but never “don’t do it”. It would be against best advice and all the evidence which points to the opposite being best for the child. Choice is key. But people vary and some of us need something different to a funeral in order to process grief.
Will the funeral be like it was on Eastenders?
Children attending funerals is normal and to be encouraged…but if all they ever see is a ‘depressing’ un-relatable ceremony happening to other people they are unlikely to see it as something for them. I no longer have a TV but I worked in a cinema for 11 years and I know that filmic ideas about funerals are there for dramatic effect and not for showing the reality. They are a device for a narrative.
The funerals you have seen on TV will vary. The Queen’s State Funeral which is about as far away as you can get from the service you could expect from a Celebrant. But others are more similar. I found this photo of a hearse used for a funeral on Eastenders….This is an alternative way of celebrating a life….it doesn’t have to be all Pomp and Ceremony. So the child needs to know the kind of funeral they are going to be watching. Context is everything
Here is an example of a more progressive type of funeral hearse and some photos from a funeral I created with a family, he loved those particular types of cars!
Encourage your child to see death as part of life, something normal
If a child knows that they can blow bubbles for Nan, wear sparkly shoes, release Doves or light candles, write a card for Mom or draw a picture on the coffin and hold hands around the coffin with their family and say ‘night night God Bless’ it will seem like a nice thing that they want to do. If they know that the dog can come with them and their favourite teddy they will find that comforting.
If it seems like a ‘normal’ thing to do that is in line with how they live their lives and is just continuous with Nan’s life…it will make sense for them to do it. It will be something they won’t want to miss out on. Nobody wants to be left out of ‘saying goodbye’ or not allowed to give a last ‘present’. They won’t want to miss that opportunity, especially when everyone else gets to do it.
Involve everybody, favourite foods, drinks and traditions work well
Sometimes I work with families who create garlands and bunting, photo boards, films, decorate coffins, make bunches of flowers, plant trees, make memory trees, have cream teas, put out Mom’s artwork…we involve soft toys and lots of craft and colour. We work together as creatively and as engagingly as we can to make sure that the children are integral to the celebration. They are part of the family too. It has happened to them too. Not inviting them to the funeral doesn’t make it go away. It doesn’t make it more or less distressing if they go the funeral.
The worst thing has already happened. To then be excluded if they don’t want to be makes it worse not better, because they are now left out while everyone else goes to do something important and no one has explained why it is important for everyone else to do it but not for them. Then the question is “why?” “why am I not important enough that what I want to do doesn’t matter?”
Children can be comfortable around death
This knowledge that if a child is not invited they will feel rejection is only one aspect of the research. It is as important to tell the truth as it is to include them. Children are often robust, as children we adapt and we find ways to cope but it can make experiences of death much less complex for some children in the here and now and long term… if they are told the truth about death instead of being told things to make them feel better. The essence of it is that if you exclude a child and ‘protect’ them from the funeral you don’t actually protect them from death. If you then say “you will see Nanny soon” instead of “Nanny has died and she is not coming back” to protect them, and then Nanny doesn’t come back….that can then translate to a sense of betrayal. As far as the child is concerned you lied to them. So the list of reasons why saying “no” to a child who wants to attend is not a great idea….is long.
Humour at funerals can be vital
Make it clear to your child that laughter is good and it is ok to laugh and still have fun even if other people are sad. Laughter and humour around death and funerals are a coping mechanism and they are important.
Tell the Truth about Death, Dying and Funerals
The merits of telling them the truth about death and then asking them what THEY believe about death and what happens to you afterwards…rather than telling them what to think are also well documented. It is a simple matter or respect, the kind of respect of your wishes as an adult that you would expect.
Tell the truth of your own emotional experience and respect theirs
In the end it helps to ask ourselves…what would we want? The answer is obvious to me. We would want to be included, have choice and be told the truth, that is clear to most of us, I think. Research suggests that when we try to protect our children from feeling sad…we are actually trying to protect ourselves from feeling sad. We want to protect ourselves from telling them the harsh reality about life, which is ultimately SPOILER ALERT….that it ends.
Every person, family and culture is different
I must emphasise that if you decided previously that not allowing your child to attend a family Celebration of Life was the right thing to do . ..I totally see why you made that decision and I’m sure you had all the right reasons and you know your children. Every child, every cultural tradition and every circumstance is different. What matters is freedom of choice and respect.
If you are on the fence about whether to let your child watch, or unsure about the general wisdom around it…or you never needed to think about it until now, you need to be informed in order to make that judgement. I hope this blog post can save you the trouble of reading endless articles and googling to oblivion. If your children/child want(s) to attend, trust them and ask yourself the hard questions about why you don’t want them to be there….As children we are Smart. We know stuff. I honestly think we are more in tune with our needs when we are children. Most children that I work with are remarkably pragmatic and real about death. It generally doesn’t phase them unless it phases their parent.
Can Teddy come too? YES! TEDDY IS INVITED
This leads me to another important thing about funerals. If you are sad, your child knows. If Grandad died, and Mom loved Grandad and Grandad is Mom’s Dad, Mom will be sad. Pretty obvious. If you have red eyes and you’re not sleeping or eating, you’re obviously sad. Saying ‘Mommy is fine’ will not convince any child anywhere…because, as I said….they’re smart, intuitive and sensitive. If they are sad because you are sad and they cry, then saying ‘don’t cry’ is not a good idea. Being sad because someone died is normal, crying is scientifically proven to aid emotional healing. WE CRY FOR A GOOD REASON.
SHARED CREATIVITY HELPS
GET CREATIVE….If you find it difficult to get everyone to feel safe to talk about their feelings create a safe space by doing shared crafting activities. It facilitates emotional honesty in a safe space. It is non confrontational, easier somehow and sometimes children can then draw what they feel in colour instead of words. This might particularly help if your child is neurodiverse.
I can’t re-iterate this enough, being honest about your own sadness, crying openly is really really important. Crying because you are sad is normal. Telling a child that you are not sad when it is not true is untrue, they will know it but then doubt their own judgment. They thought you looked sad, but when they asked you, it turned out they were wrong…”Mom isn’t sad…I got it wrong, why do I feel sad if Mom isn’t sad?” It is confusing. If you cry it gives permission for them to cry. This is always a good thing. As a child, crying because your Mom is sad about Grandad and you are also sad about Grandad is also normal and telling a child not to do it…is well, not fair….so create a safe space where emotions can be honestly and openly shared without judgement or reproach. Whatever those feelings are…and they will vary.
I’m sorry if I’m teaching Grandmothers to suck eggs. I am not a parent and I’ve never been in your shoes. But I do have the benefit of years and years of experience in this field and I know that the best thing is Tell the Truth and respect their wishes.
A family of 5 will have 5 totally different needs! KNOW THAT YOU WILL ALL FEEL DIFFERENTLY AT DIFFERENT TIMES AND IT TAKES PATIENCE AND ACCEPTANCE. Allow your child to do their thing.
When we grieve we behave in ways we would perhaps not behave usually, often we regress and often we re-visit past trauma. It is also the case that public discourse around death is generally quite bizarre and death is hidden from view and medicalised. So generally speaking we lack the vocabulary or the expertise to know what to do…but trust me…your child knows what to do. Learn from them
I hope this is something you find helpful and I encourage you to let your child be themselves just as you would at any other time. MUCH LOVE Jess xxxx