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Death hurts, but funerals can be a unique way to help humans — including young children — process grief and loss. How can you prepare your child to attend a funeral?

Death is an integral and inevitable part of life, something young children in modern-day societies seem to fully understand somewhere between ages five and seven [1]. Parents play an important role in this developmental milestone, and research suggests that moms and dads tend to have the "death talk" somewhere around age three, and 75 percent of parents have discussed the concept of dying with their two to seven year old kids [2]. That isn't quite the same as preparing for a death and funeral of a specific person, though.

While the knowledge that we'll all die one day is right up there with other important life lessons like "respect your fellow humans" and "everyone makes mistakes, and they can help us grow", we also all know that the death of a loved one hurts — and most of us prefer to minimize any pain our children experience. That might be why many people still believe that young children shouldn't attend funerals. Should they, and if you're planning on accompanying your young child(ren) to a funeral, how can you prepare them?

Should Young Children Attend Funerals?

Many children will lose someone close to them — a grandparent, parent, aunt or uncle, or great-grandparent — before they reach double digits, and if they didn't understand the irreversible nature of death when it happens, they will soon learn. The death of a loved one hurts. All of us, regardless of age. The death of a loved one can, for young children, even be traumatic. 

Funerals, whether the departed has made the choice of burial or cremation, are rituals humans developed over the long course of our existence to help make sense of death and to honor and say good bye to the person who left us. Rather than being traumatic in themselves, they are, arguably, actively a way to cope with trauma and bereavement. 

One study of young children who attended the funeral of a parent (in many cases the most traumatic kind of death they can experience) found that being at the funeral did not negatively impact the emotional health of those children two months after the death [3]. Another study of children who lost a parent found that funeral "attendance helped them to acknowledge the death, provided an occasion for honoring their deceased parent, and made it possible for them to receive support and comfort" [4]. 

Children who do not get the chance to attend the funeral of someone who was close to them still lose that person, but may be stripped of a unique chance to emotionally and mentally process the death. Now, that doesn't mean it's necessary to drag children to the funeral of a neighbor or coworker of yours they barely knew, of course, but children do deserve the opportunity to deal with the death of an immediate relative or close friend in their own individual ways by having access to the universal human ritual that a funeral is. 

How To Prepare Your Child To Attend A Funeral

While some funeral homes now provide funeral services specifically geared toward children [5], most won't. In this case, your preparation will be twofold — you'll prepare your child for the emotional aspects of the funeral as well as explaining relevant funeral etiquette, depending on their age. 

You can:

  1. Explain death in accordance with your personal beliefs if you have a young child who doesn't yet understand it very well. Your conversation may include what you believe happens after death, an explanation as to how your loved one passed away, and reiterating the fact that your child will not be seeing that person again, but they are still very much "alive" in memory. You may also explain that while everyone dies, most people live a very long time.
  2. Explain what will happen at the funeral — where it will be, what kind of service will be held, if there will be a viewing (and that they can, but don't have to, participate in it), how the body will be laid to rest (burial vs cremation), and that everyone will be feeling sad and a lot of people will cry. 
  3. Explain what they should and should not do at the funeral. This is obviously dependent on the (sub-)culture of the person whose funeral is being held. Apparently, when I attended the funeral of my great-grandmother at age three, my jolly laughter and running around was actually of great comfort to my grandmother. If people at the funeral in question will not feel the same, make it clear that this an occasion at which everyone acts solemnly. 

You could also offer your child a "get-out clause". If attending the whole funeral is important to you personally, perhaps ask a support person whom your child knows well but who wasn't close to the departed to come along. That way, if the funeral becomes too much for your child, they can step out (for a while) with the support person. 

In my family, we also generally leave the departed with a little personal gift that goes in the coffin with them. If you have this tradition or would like to start it, you could ask your child to make a drawing or craft project as a final act of good bye. Another form of this tradition is to make things to lay at the grave, or to place fresh flowers.  

How To Prepare Yourself For Your Child's Presence At A Funeral

This can basically be summed up as "it is OK for your child to see you cry." Really. Modeling healthy grief will benefit your child for the rest of their life, and that grief doesn't end with the funeral itself, of course. It is OK to talk about missing your loved one and to invite your child to do the same thing. 

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