Kids and Funerals: A Parenting Guide to Handling Issues of Death and Mourning

This subject is awful, a why-think-about-it-before-you-have-to kind of thing. Each person's experience of grief, or dealing with the grief-stricken is very personal. Add to that the complexities of relationships and religion (and our relationships to religion) and it's a struggle to form an opinion when faced with a funeral to go to.

Death happens. And children need to begin the lifelong process of understanding and coming to grips with it. In order to raise children we respect and admire we have to discuss the hard stuff. Death tops that list.

Last week the principal at my sons' school lost his adult daughter. The kids were told in a very general way about this and the parents (informed beforehand) could take over from there in any way they saw fit. It is our religious tradition to visit the family in mourning in the week following the funeral. This was (thanks be) the first time in a couple of years that we had such a visit to make and my husband and I decided to bring the two older boys along. They each have a relationship with their principal (good so far!) and we believe that comforting the bereaved is a sacred obligation.

Even if that is not your religious belief, I propose that comforting the grieving is a very important life skill. The gravity of the situation allows children and teens to (briefly) get outside their current thoughts and problems, and figure out how to talk to someone in a worse situation than them. Experiencing the community aspect of these gatherings is also a good lesson.

"What if my child is too young?" Only you can decide when your child is old enough. A lot of this depends on the age of the deceased and the personalities in the grieving family. Would a small child playing bring a smile or a frown? A child to young to understand death won't be scarred by a funeral but may make you too nervous to be able to really be present yourself. If the child is in the family of the deceased then I think most instances warrant bringing the child to be a part of the family. When we lost my father-in-law it was our then 2 year old that kept the rest of the family intact, just by being himself.

"What if my child might be scared?" This is reasonable. First I would challenge you to make sure that it is not your own fear (of death or grieving) that you are projecting. Beyond that, I urge you to introduce your child to this topic gently - avoiding an open casket wake (or sticking to the back), waiting and paying a social call on the family some time after the immediate grieving period.

When we entered the home of this tragically saddened family, the principal was standing near the door. When he saw me he smiled a gentle smile he had clearly been putting on all day. When he saw my sons, something in his face opened and he said, "Oh, more of my children. This is what will get me through." As he enfolded them in a hug - that they both returned - they brought him a comfort I could not.

This is hard. If you ignore this opportunity for teaching, it may (hopefully) not come up again for a while. That won't avoid it forever though, and kids deserve this education as much as any other.