Q. I want to take my six-year-old son to my father’s funeral, but my wife feels it’s inappropriate for children to attend. She thinks it will scare him. What’s your take on this issue?
A. I recently attended a funeral where two toddlers made the rounds of the reception room, as friends and relatives paid respects to the mourners prior to the service. A baby slept soundly in a carriage, then woke to bellow for a few seconds. It was a room filled with life—and the deceased (the children’s great grandmother) would have loved the scene. There were tears and reminiscences, but joy as well, as the cycle of life played out before our eyes. The children were a tremendous comfort to everyone present. It was a day of loss, but also hope for the future. The baby and toddlers did not sit in the chapel for the actual funeral. A babysitter or friend of the family took them to another room to assure an uninterrupted service.
This was quite a change from my own upbringing. In my family, children did not go to funerals and deaths were whispered about. I viewed funerals as mysterious, frightening events. And there were repercussions. I’m mortified to confess that when the father of my close friend died many years ago, I felt so uncomfortable about attending the funeral that I showed up late—just as cars were pulling away to make the trip to the cemetery. Unconsciously, I found a way to avoid a dreaded experience. My friend was understanding and forgave me, but it was hard to forgive myself for this bit of cowardice.
In many other countries, children grow up viewing death as a natural part of life. Years ago that was true in the U.S. People died at home, not in hospitals, and frequently the family prepared the body for burial. Today we’re distanced from death in our society.
I would say to a six year old something like, “We’re going to grandpa’s funeral. Do you want to come along?” If the answer is no, of course don’t force the child to go. Respect his wishes—and the anxiety he may feel. Whether he goes or not, answer any questions he has or invite him to ask questions with, “Is there anything you want to know about the funeral?” This can be a great opportunity to share feelings with your child and become closer.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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