Taking children to funerals
Should children attend funerals? Grief and bereavement expert Catherine Betley explains whether or not we should take children to funerals and guides us through the process of telling a child about what happens at a funeral service.
The decision of whether to take a child to a funeral is very personal one. Some people worry that a child might not cope with the sadness of the occasion, or if the child is very young that they might be disruptive. While these may be valid concerns, when children are informed about what happens at a funeral, given choice about attending and are included, they are normally able to cope and even contribute to what can be a difficult day. Children who have been well supported to attend a funeral rarely express that they wish that they had not done so.
Family rituals, including funerals, are important to children. When someone dies, children usually find comfort in having the opportunity to say goodbye. While their grief may look slightly different to that of an adult (see our section on ‘how children grieve’) they will still experience many of the same emotions as adults, so it is important that these are understood and supported.
Should children attend funerals?
Deciding whether to take a child to a funeral will be based on several factors – their age and level of understanding, the nature of the death of the person who has died and how difficult their funeral might be and whether you think the child can be well supported at the funeral so that they can cope. If possible, children should be included in funerals if they wish to be – excluding children can make them feel as though they are not an important part of the family and that their loss doesn’t matter, as well as potentially raising unnecessary worries about what happens at a funeral.
Taking a baby or toddler to a funeral
Taking babies and toddlers to a funeral can be stressful, particularly if you are worried about their potential to make unwelcome noise. They can, however, bring some light relief to a sad day, reminding us all that even when life ends, there is still new life and hope for the future. It might be that taking a baby or small child to the ceremony is too difficult, but that their presence would be very welcome at a reception or gathering afterwards.
Explaining what happens at a funeral to children
It’s important not to assume that a child understands what happens at a funeral and why – unless they have been to a funeral before, children’s understanding of funerals may have come from the media or what they have picked up from conversations within the family at the time of the death. Explaining what happens at a funeral is an important part of helping the child decide if they would like to attend.
Many children want to contribute something to the funeral of someone that they loved; whether it’s writing a poem or drawing a picture, reading a prayer or helping to choose the music to be played. Allowing children to contribute this way can help the child to begin to understand their loss and to feel part of an important family event.
If the funeral is likely to be difficult and you may be unable to support the child due to your own grief, it would be sensible to ask another adult if they will help to support and look after the child(ren) while they are at the funeral. If you feel that the child may need some form of entertainment during a long ceremony, a book or quiet toy might help to provide them with a distraction so that they don’t become disruptive.
If it is not possible to take children to a funeral, helping them to have their own ritual of saying goodbye or doing something special to remember the person who has died can be very helpful in ensuring that they understand the finality of death and have the opportunity to remember their loved one.
You may also find our guide on explaining death to children useful.
Contributed by Catherine Betley, Managing Director of Professional Help Limited & GriefChat®
Catherine has over 20 years experience of managing counselling and therapy organisations, starting and developing new projects and ventures and delivering training and support to a huge range of organisations.
She has worked in business and across the voluntary and community sector at local, regional and national levels, including a serving as Director of Services for Cruse Bereavement Care, the world’s largest bereavement charity.
Catherine is currently Managing Director of Professional Help Limited, which delivers confidential and impartial support and counselling including employee support, critical incident response and bereavement counselling. In 2017, Catherine set up GriefChat® which enables bereaved people to chat instantly online to a qualified bereavement counsellor. GriefChat won the ‘Best Bereavement Support Website’ category at the 2018 Good Funeral Awards.
We know that no-one can understand exactly what your loss feels like to you. But we do understand that it’s sometimes easier to talk to someone outside of your friends and family about grief and the impact bereavement has on your life. This is why we offer the GriefChat service.
GriefChat was created by bereavement experts and allows you to chat directly to a specially trained bereavement counsellor. GriefChat counsellors are experienced in supporting bereaved people and will listen to your story, explore how your grief is affecting you and help you to find any additional support you might need.
Dignity provides free access to the GriefChat service. You can use it here.