Funerals are powerful rituals that help us confront loss. They are also meaningful family, religious and cultural events. Funeral rituals bring families together, offering each other support, and they show the ways that our own cultural backgrounds and religious faiths help us address the crisis of loss.
Since funerals are so critical, once children are developmentally able to understand a funeral and sit through a ceremony, they ought to have a choice about the ways in which they wish to participate in a funeral. In order to make that choice meaningful, children need information, options and support.
In preparing a child to make a decision about whether or not to attend a funeral, begin by explaining what the funeral is and what is likely to occur. Describe its purpose, the physical setting, ways in which people are expected to behave and the range of reactions the child may observe. Tell the child that people may sob or cry because they miss the person. They may even laugh as they remember funny or happy stories about the person who died. Assure the child that any decision he or she makes is appropriate and will be understood. Patiently answer any questions. Most funeral homes will show the child the facility prior to the funeral.
If the child is really going to decide, he or she will need a viable alternative. If a younger child’s only alternative is to stay home in an empty house, it won’t be much of a choice. If possible, arrange for the child to stay with a sympathetic or trusted adult.
Remember, too, that funerals are, in many cultures, multifaceted events. For example, many American funerals have a visitation period, a funeral service, an interment at a cemetery, and perhaps, a post-funeral meal. One of the options for children and adolescents is to decide which events they would find most meaningful to attend.
Children and adolescents also need support. When parents are directly involved in the funeral they might not be able to provide that support. For example, when John’s father died, he was both too busy at the funeral and still in too great a state of shock to look after his own children’s emotional needs. It is helpful to have a supportive adult not intimately involved in the funeral who is assigned to be attentive to the child, perhaps even taking the child away if they child needs respite. With older children and adolescents it is also important to allow and encourage peer support.
Funeral rituals are most effective when they are personal and participatory. Here, too, children and adolescents can contribute. Their ideas may be solicited on how the ritual is planned and conducted.
They can participate, too. One of the most meaningful funeral rituals I ever attended was for an adolescent killed in a bicycling accident. Her friends participated fully in the service — singing, reading and ushering. Not only did that participation help them say goodbye to a friend, it reminded her parents of how much their daughter’s friends cared.
Participation does not have to be public. Adolescents and children can be invited to write letters, draw pictures or offer objects that can be placed in the casket. They can help in selecting photographs to be displayed at the funeral. They can contribute a videotaped tribute. All these actions, whether public or private, make them participants rather than observers. And all serve to make the ritual meaningful.
Tags: photographs, rituals, videotape