As we spoke with parents when writing our book, I Have a Question about Death, one of the questions that came up most frequently was whether or not to bring a child to a funeral or memorial service. This is an understandable question, especially given how difficult it can be to talk with children about death and dying. As with any decision involving children, and particularly so if the child has special needs, it’s most important to take into account a child’s social and emotional development. That being said, we encourage bringing children to funerals and memorial services in the ways that feel right for you and that child, and encourage exploring ways to incorporate the child into the rituals and experiences in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. The key concept is preparation.
Let’s start with the easier part of the preparation—the schedule and routine. All children, and particularly those with special needs, crave routine and consistency. It’s important for a child to know what to expect with a funeral, especially if this is unchartered territory for them. Utilize strategies that work for the child in other parts of their life, like drawing a picture schedule of the sequence of events (ride a car to the funeral home, attend the funeral, ride a car to a cemetery, go to the cemetery for the burial, ride the car to a certain person’s home, eat food and see family and friends there). For children who are more verbal or older, providing a written schedule with a small check box next to each item can prepare them for the next steps. If there is time, consider visiting the funeral home or cemetery ahead of time, or describe in clear language what they might expect to see at these places, such as how they will see the coffin/casket or the urn.
Next comes the trickier part—preparing the children for the emotional aspects of the experience. In addition to explaining the nature of the day, try to spend some time preparing them for the nature of what they might expect. Explain that they may see adults crying, which is a natural response to missing the person who died. Describe how they may see people laughing, which can be unexpected at a funeral, as people may recount funny stories about the person who died. Normalize the emotions they and others might feel—sadness, confusion, unease, or even happiness in seeing certain family members, like cousins who live out of town.
As for the adults, think about the day of the funeral as a whole, and have a back-up plan. Consider having a trusted adult available to give the child a break, and bring some sensory toys, favorite books, or coloring supplies. Be sure not to force a child to attend, yet encourage their involvement as part of the experience. Know ahead of time that children often grieve in spurts, and may seem to want to play as usual at times, then other times become more clingy.
Including a child in the rituals after the death of a loved one can go a long way, for many children process information best by doing and seeing. Being present at these rituals helps make the experience feel more real, and can go a long way in teaching about the nature of life and death, an important life skill.