Because funerals serve a valuable function of helping the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the death of a loved one, children who are old enough not only can but should be included in funeral arrangements.
What is "old enough," you ask? It really depends on the child. To give you some perspective, though, as a hospice nurse and social worker, I have been with children as young as 2 years old at funerals.
Ideally, children are engaged in the service. Even very young children can choose the kind of flowers they would like to give and may bring the flowers with them. Older children can do readings or assist with music selections. Many children write a letter, draw a picture, or choose a keepsake to put into the casket (as culturally appropriate).
It is important to prepare children for what they will encounter at each step of the funeral or memorial service. Explain what the funeral home, church, and/or cemetery look like. Explain and name significant elements such as casket, hearse, or grave. Include an explanation of how people may behave and help children to understand that the tears of the adults around them are okay and nothing to be afraid of. When they know what to expect, children will not be overwhelmed.
Choose a close friend, family member, or babysitter to accompany the children throughout the wake and funeral. This takes the pressure off of the surviving parent. This person serves as a child's advocate and ensures that children are well cared for. The person acting as the child's advocate will also answer their questions and be aware of the child's emotional state when parents are busy with the extraordinary demands of the day. This person needs to be rock solid and focused on their sole responsibility of getting the child/children through the service(s).
Grief often looks very different in children than it does in adults. While some children may be tearful and appear sad, many more tend to play and socialize their way through the farewell ritual. Children are only able to hold a certain amount of emotional pain. They then need to let it out by playing. Many children have called the wake, "That big party we had for Mommy."
The Silver Lining of including children at the funeral is that they really connect with the gathering aspect of these events, and they can lead the way when it comes to celebrating a life. They often recount the wonderful things said about the person who has died and talk about all the people who came to the funeral. Children will remember having been part of the important goodbye and are affirmed by participating in it. With thoughtful preparation, we can safely and meaningfully include children in funeral rituals. There may be no greater opportunity to share with them what it means to be family.
To read more about Hollye's holistic and humorous journey over, around, above and below breast cancer, please visit her blog, The Silver Pen (http://www.thesilverpen.com/). You may email her at hollye@TheSilverPen or follow her on Twitter @hollyejacobs.
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