My 54-year-old client sat across from me with tears in her eyes. She was describing her mother's death when she was 8 years old. She choked back her tears, overwhelmed by emotion. This loss of 46 years was as fresh as if it had occurred yesterday.
She leaned toward me, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "The worst part, still," she said, "is that I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral."
Ah, yes. I have heard this tale many times. How many well-meaning adults have attempted to shield children from emotional pain by keeping them from attending funerals or memorial services? How many adults still reel from having been excluded from that opportunity to grieve, to share in a communal goodbye?
It's tempting to believe that our job as parents is to protect our children from emotional pain. Ultimately this is an impossible task because life is full of endings, change, and loss. Our real job as parents should be to help children tolerate sorrow, help them face it, and give them tools to cope.
The funeral (or memorial service) is a prime example where we can join as loving family members to honor a beloved life and share in an important rite of passage. It is a time when we can all begin the lifelong process of transcending loss. No child is too young to attend. Here are six guidelines to bear in mind when you include children in a funeral ritual.
Surround Them With Support -- Make certain that the children sit with people they know and trust. If you anticipate not being able to care for a young child due to your own emotional state, assign a special person ahead of time to that role.
Model Emotion -- Be a living example that both tears and laughter are acceptable as you allow yourself to feel a wide range of emotions. This makes it more comfortable for the kids to own their own feelings, however diverse.
Celebrate a Life -- Children benefit when they understand the larger context of a loved one's life. The sharing of memories, the telling of stories gives them a wider lens on someone they loved.
Debrief -- Talk to the child after the service to help them describe their experience. Ask specific questions, "What did you notice that was interesting?" "What happened that you expected?" "What happened that surprised you?" "Do you have any questions?" Be prepared to listen without judgment or commentary.
Be Open -- If a child absolutely refuses to attend, accept it. If a child has to leave in the middle of the service, accept it. If a child does or doesn't want to participate in the planning of the service, accept it. Listen to their concerns and ultimately do not force your agenda on their personal grieving process.
Offer a Greater Perspective -- Having an open and inclusive funeral helps children to begin their own lifelong process of integrating life, love, and loss. You can allow children to participate in age-appropriate ways (choose flowers, select readings, pass out programs, offer music). Welcome them to the truth of death as a necessary part of life.
Open your own heart and understand that children benefit when they participate in a family event that includes both celebration and pain. Together you can face the sorrow, share the tears, and always, always, hold the love in your hearts.
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