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The adage "children should be seen and not heard" certainly applies to funerals. In fact, some might say children's attendance at funerals is wrong, period.
Admittedly, many adults have a difficult time coping at a funeral. So how can we expect the youngest members of our family to be on their best behavior?
There are a number of different factors to consider, but most agree that, generally, children should be given the chance to grieve and say their goodbyes, assuming they are comfortable doing so. Of course, not all children are old enough to grasp the situation and this makes it difficult for them to decide for themselves. Ultimately, the child’s parent or guardian should make the final decision. Our general guidelines below should help you in deciding whether a child should attend a funeral.
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So at what age is it acceptable to bring a child to a funeral? Most people will agree that an infant is too young. Bringing a baby to a funeral is likely to simply cause a distraction.
However, there are two exceptions:
Toddlers tend to be very active; you can't expect them to sit through a funeral service. It's also unfair to their parents, who may have to miss the service because they'll need to escort their child out if he/she becomes unruly. One of the best gifts you can give to the grieving family is to offer babysitting services during the funeral. Perhaps you know a trusted teenager who can watch the children for the parents. Just be sure that you foot the bill for the babysitting.
Children of preschool age may be able to entertain themselves for the duration of a funeral. Bring whatever they need to keep quietly busy/distracted, such as books, coloring books, snacks, etc. They are, however, still too young to understand the full meaning of death and loss.
By elementary school age, most children understand that death is permanent. Whether the children attend the funeral or not, parents should discuss the subject of death with them. At this age, children's curiosity is great; their questions should be answered as candidly as possible.
It may be appropriate to bring a younger child to a funeral if he/she is the son or daughter of the deceased. If the child had a particularly strong bond with a grandparent or other relative, it also may be appropriate for him/her to attend.
With the loss of a sibling, it usually is appropriate for children to attend the funeral. A child may in some way feel responsible for the sibling's death or suffer from survivor guilt. Attendance at the funeral can help to reassure the surviving sibling and rid him/her of guilty feelings.
Counseling or a support group may benefit a child who has lost a parent or sibling. For younger children, start with an age-appropriate book about losing a loved one.
In 1996, Drs. Phyllis Silverman and J. William Worden conducted the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Child Bereavement Study. They interviewed 125 children between the ages of 6 and 17 who had lost a parent. Of these children, 95 percent attended their parent's funeral. Their surviving parent respected their wishes. Reflecting on their participation several months later, the children said they felt it was important they were there to honor their parent and to say goodbye. Two years after the funeral, the children indicated it was important that they had been there to show respect for their parent, to see them one last time and that being there helped them accept the death. Parents must take into account the needs of bereaved children.
The study confirms that funerals serve the same purposes for children as they do for adults. Funerals enable mourners to acknowledge the death, honor the life of the deceased, and provide social support and comfort. Most of all, they offer closure.
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For religions that allow viewing of the deceased, the decision to permit your child to view the body is a difficult one. This may confuse younger children, who might think their loved one is simply sleeping. For older children, who have never seen a dead person, this may be too traumatic.
Some children may actually want to speak at the funeral service. If so, encourage them to do so in a manner most comfortable for them. Perhaps they could read an excerpt from a favorite bedtime story their parent or grandparent read to them. A middle school-aged child might want to write a poem in memory of the deceased. An older child may want to recall fond memories. If a child wants to share memories but not get up and speak, suggest that he/she write a tribute and allow you to read it.
When it comes to the actual burial, this may be too much for a child of any age. The lowering of the casket into the ground can be an extremely emotional experience. For this reason, some parents choose to allow their child to attend the service at the funeral home or place of worship, but not the graveside ceremony.
The inclusion of children at a funeral, as with any situation, depends on the individual child. Some children are very mature for their age; others remain childlike and immature well into young adulthood.
As parents, our inclination is to protect our children. However, in some cases this can do more harm than good. Use your best judgment when deciding whether your child should attend a funeral. Be prepared to explain your decision. No matter what you decide, you'll find those who are eager to disagree with you. Remind them that this is not a time for arguments, that you respect their opinion and you hope that they respect yours. We’re sorry for your loss.
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