How to involve children
Should you involve children in the funeral?
People are sometimes unsure about whether to include children in funerals. You may feel the same way. However, all the evidence is that when children have the chance to say goodbye, along with the family and friends of the person who died, they understand better what has happened, and feel supported in whatever they are feeling.
Why involve children?
The most important thing to children is to be recognised as an important family member, and included in important family events.
However, you may worry that children may be upset at seeing you and other adults crying. You may feel that children do not need to be faced with death until they are much older, that they will not understand what is going on. You might want to try and protect children from the sadness and pain associated with a death.
A child’s grief
Children will grieve in their own, often very private ways. All behaviour is normal, all their chosen timings are normal, and normal family conversations will help. Talking casually about the death or the funeral, rather than the full, more formal family meeting.
It helps if you can say authentic, simple things about how you are feeling, for example sad or anxious, so that young people do not get the example of not talking about things.
But as a parent you of course want to know they are OK, so you could try gentle suggestion. For example, something like, “I can see you are acting normally, and that is great, but you must have a lot of questions that you’re thinking about.”
What if the child cannot/does not want to be involved?
If anyone really does not want to be there, make sure they feel that this is an OK choice they have made. It may be worth you suggesting that this is something they might regret in the days to come, as more people regret not being there rather than having gone – either to visit during their last few hours/to visit the body/or to go to the funeral.
But there are also many other ways to say goodbye, some of which might be easier and more appropriate. Young people can be pleased at being involved in deciding how to remember the person who has died. For example:
- Choosing the music
- Taking flowers to the grave
- Being involved in the scattering of the ashes at a later date
- Making memory jars with special objects or pictures
- Lighting a candle in a special and safe area of the house with pictures of the person
You could consider helping them to make a folder or book from condolence cards or those written by guests at the funeral.
Giving them something precious belonging to the person who has died.
Birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries will be important times to mark.
How does it help children to be there?
It helps them say goodbye to someone important in their lives, and recognises the importance of the relationship they had with the person who has died.
It shows them that it is normal to cry and feel sad when someone dies, and surrounds them with the support of you, family and friends at the time of their grief. It helps them to know that they were there at the farewell, and to keep memories of the person who died.
How can you support children at a funeral?
A child’s understanding of death changes as they grow older. They will take in as much of a funeral as they can understand, and they do not have to be ‘old enough’ to understand everything in order to benefit from being there.
Talk to them with facts
Most of our parents and grandparents did not talk to us about death, dying, or funerals, and it is still a hard thing to do. However, children really benefit from being given information about these subjects, particularly about what is going to happen.
If they have not been to a funeral before you could tell them what will be going on, that people may be very sad, and what part they themselves might play.
There are many strange words associated with funerals (e.g. the word ‘funeral’ itself, ‘coffin’, ‘cemetery’, ‘crematorium’, ‘hearse’, ‘funeral director’) and children appreciate having these explained in simple terms.
Young children may need to know that when someone has died they no longer need to breathe, eat or move. They do not feel cold or lonely. They do not need their body any more. It is the part of them that cannot stay here with us. That is why it is OK to bury or cremate someone’s body. Children can sometimes confuse the word ‘body’ as meaning no head, arms or legs so it helps to explain what that when we talk about a dead person’s body we mean all of it.
It can help to give children choices about how they can be at a funeral. Younger children could take a favourite toy or crayons and paper. You may want to ask a more grown-up friend who the child likes to be ready to look after them if you feel too upset. Older children might want to sit with others their own age. Children of all ages appreciate being actively involved in some way.
Do children have their own beliefs?
Some will, some won’t, but it could be interesting and useful to ask them.
How should you involve children?
It is important for children of all ages to feel included. You might ask, “If you were involved, what might you like to do for…?” and to keep checking back with them in case they change their minds.
Some might feel more comfortable if one of their good friends is able to go with them, or to wait outside, or sit together during the funeral. Model any family meetings on a ‘normal’ family gathering or special occasion – your family’s way of getting together.
Can they actually play a part?
There are many creative ways for children to be involved in a funeral.
They can make or write things to put into or onto the coffin; they can write letters to the person/create drawings/colourings/poems to put in the coffin; they could help decorate the coffin; we could help to hold a ‘coffin closing’ ceremony at home, or in our quiet room, where they are able to participate; each person could try telling a story about the person who died; they can make/bake etc; they could help choose the music, the readings, the flowers; they could wear clothes that they associate with the person who has died.
They might want to write a poem, prayer or letter to be read at the funeral. Some part of the ceremony could include blowing bubbles with goodbye wishes in them.
Following the funeral, it can be helpful to gather the family together, with the children present, to go over some of the things they remember and liked, or which worked well, or that were funny or strange.
We can offer you other sensible, practical ideas to involve children creatively and safely – and to try and answer your questions and address your concerns.
There are books for them and for grown-ups that are very helpful, which you can see on this page here.