By Julie Elbert
Question: I am a mom of three kids and when an extended family member died, I started to think about them attending the funeral. I asked a few people and they shared their opinion about whether or not kids should attend. Some people said kids are a distraction. Others told me that kids should go to funerals because it is an important part of life. Please tell me what you think because I do not want to scar my kids or deprive them of important life lessons. – Molly C.
Answer: I am so glad you asked this question Molly.
Death is part of life, whether we embrace it or try to avoid it. If we make it scary and dark, our kids will be afraid. If we model for children that we can face it, talk about it, and even attend funerals, our children will be more prepared for this part of life as they get older.
How we experience loss as adults really depends on how it was handled in our families as we grew up. If we are allowed to talk about feelings and ask a lot of questions, our ability to process death and to grieve is much better than if the message is to keep quiet and be stoic.
For adults, in the midst of grief, it can be hard to be patient with inquisitive kids asking a lot of questions. However, it is often the best time to have these important conversations about everything associated with the death of a loved one. We need to embrace every question and try to not to shun children when they ask things we may think are inappropriate or insensitive. It is at those moments, when they are asking silly and strange questions, that you are really seeing their minds working hard to understand this extremely complicated concept.
Imagine being eight years old and attending the funeral of a classmate. My daughter noticed that her peer had make-up on in the casket. She looked at me and said, “My friend would never wear make-up!”
She had many questions about why her friend that passed away had make-up on and this was her main focus. As uncomfortable as it was to have this conversation with my daughter, I tried hard to explain this in the simplest of terms.
Yes, it was awkward and sad. However, it was important to not discount her question based on rules of etiquette. Some might say her comments were rude or inappropriate. My concern was how she would remember this experience as an adult. I did not want her to grow up believing death was a frightening experience, rather, to walk through her own grief, while being able to offer care and support to others experiencing loss.
Of course, there are times when it is not feasible to take a child to a funeral. However, when it is possible, remember that you are the teacher, and your child will be watching how you grieve, extend sympathy to others, and even view the body (when appropriate).
Be sure to talk about this in simple but caring terms with your child. Someday, your child will have to deal with losing you. Help them obtain the necessary skills to talk about their feelings, as well as to cope with grief and loss early on in their life. You have the ability to help them feel capable to face life’s most difficult challenges.
This response was written by Julie Elbert, LISW, clinical director at Catholic Charities. Please send any questions, big or small, to firstname.lastname@example.org.