One of the questions I am often asked is ‘should I bring my children to a funeral?’
My response is always a firm and definite ‘YES’. Yes children belong at funerals, and yes you can talk death and dying with children of any age.
It is not only healthy for children to have questions about death and funerals, it is normal and healthy for children to hear parents talking about death and dying with other adults, too.
Generally this sort of question is a way of asking if children are ready for death literacy, and can indicate that the parents or guardians are not sure how to talk with children about what a funeral is, what happens at a funeral, what a funeral represents, and how to behave at a funeral. Use straightforward language (age appropriate is fine, but don’t make up stories or be vague – use words like ‘dead’, ‘death’, ‘died’) and answer questions to the best of your ability. If you don’t know something simply say that you don’t know, but you will find out – maybe you can all do a bit of internet research together, or write an email to an end of life doula together asking for help in finding answers (I am happy to help families out when asked to, FYI).
Funerals are a social rite of passage.
However, I do wish to emphasise that is also important to ask the child or children if they would like to come to a funeral, and then respect their decision. Children know if they feel comfortable going to an event or ceremony or not – and allow them to change their minds if they want to. If the funeral is from home, or in a public area, ask the funeral host if pets are allowed to come, too. Let’s get death literacy normalised for all generations, and all members of the family.
One tip for talking to children about death and funerals is not to use euphemisms, or tell children lies*, but say instead that a funeral is a way to celebrate the life of the person who has died. An easy way to then find out how a child feels about attending is to then ask ‘would you like to be a part of this?’ Allowing children agency and a chance to make a decision is important, and offers new ways of joining in community for younger family members. *The worst story of lying to children about death that I’ve personally ever heard is: “they are now a butterfly in heaven”. One child I know had panic attacks every time they saw a butterfly after that, had nightmares about keeping all the butterflies alive or someone would die, and required counselling to be able to come to terms with what death actually is. Lying hurts children, please don’t add to a child’s grief.
If you are not sure how to have a conversation with your children about death or funerals please email me at email@example.com and I can help you out. I specialise in communication and death literacy for all ages. Let’s talk.