When a close relative or friend dies, parents often agonize over whether to take a child to the funeral. Many factors enter into this decision, including your cultural background, the age and emotional maturity of your child, the closeness of the relationship and, perhaps most importantly, the wishes of your child herself.
Very Young Children
Infants will get nothing from a funeral and can be distracting to other people. At this age, it's best to leave your child at home. For slightly older children who are aware of the death of someone close to them, you should adapt to the behavior of the child, if you take him at all. "A toddler or preschooler will often get bored and will need to be taken out when they have had enough," said Laura Markham, child psychologist and author of the book "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting."
Early School-Age Children
Children from about 3 to 6 years old have a beginning understanding of death, but they often don't realize its permanence, frequently asking when the person is coming back, even after saying, "They're dead" just a few moments before. For a child of this age, even seeing the person in the casket may not cause the fact to truly sink in. Don't take your child to a funeral just so he can "understand" this; children this age don't have the capacity to completely grasp the concept of death. "Seeing someone in a casket can be very frightening to them. Children should never be forced to 'view' an open casket if they are frightened," Markham warned.
By age 7 or so, most children understand the permanence of death. A school-age child is also old enough to attend a funeral, but only if he wants to. Give your child the choice of whether he wants to go or not, without any pressure or coercion to go, Markham advised. Seeing friends and family at the funeral can be a source of comfort to some children. Spending time listening to stories about the deceased can also help your child. Making a child stay home might make him feel alone in his grief and resentful about not being able to attend.
Teens are old enough to attend a funeral, but in some cases, they might still draw back or be hesitant to go. A teen might be afraid of showing emotion or crying in front of other people or be embarrassed by other people openly grieving. If you think this might be behind a teen's refusal to attend and you would like him to go, explain that there will other rooms or places to go if the emotion gets to be too much for him. A teen is old enough to understand that other people might criticize his decision not to attend the funeral of a sibling, parent or close grandparent, but it's your job as a parent to let him know you respect his decision and will support it.
Just asking your child whether he wants to attend a funeral isn't enough. You need to help your child make the decision; you can do this in several ways. Explain to him exactly what will happen. If there is an open casket, let him know he doesn't have to see the person, touch him, kiss him or any of the other actions he might see other people doing. Tell him who will be there and where the service will be. If the service will be in an unfamiliar church, tell him a little about any religious rituals he might see carried out.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.