My grandfather is currently in hospice care with leukemia. I remember attending funerals as a child and being very upset by them, so I'm torn. Should I bring my 5- and 8-year-old sons to their great-grandfather's memorial service? I reached out to parents and experts for advice, and this is what I learned.
Kids can and should witness grief
One of my concerns is that seeing me upset will upset my children. Eleanor Haley and Litsa Williams are the co-founders of WhatsYourGrief. They spoke to me about kids and funerals. "Seeing adults grieve serves as a model for children and shows them it's OK to feel and express difficult emotion," Haley says. They recommend preparing the child for the full range of emotions they might see. Kids need to know that big feelings and displays of grief are normal. Discussing the way adults feel and act will help kids express their own feelings.
Have support at the service
I worry that watching over my kids and worrying about them will keep me from being able to grieve during a memorial service. "In anticipation of both you and the child needing a little extra support during the funeral, think about whether there is a friend or family member who could be your child's 'buddy' and help guide him or her through the day," says Haley. Your support person can help answer questions and can potentially take your child home if the child is ready to leave.
Recognize signs that kids aren't ready
Ronald Crouch is a licensed clinical psychologist who has counseled many children through grief. "While there is no right age for a child to attend, it is important to understand that children under 6 do not have the cognitive ability to fully understand what death is and what it means to others." Take into consideration the age and maturity level of your child, as well as the nature of the planned service. "Young children are sometimes very confused by the presence of the body, and think that the person is just sleeping. If there is a viewing of the body and you have a young child, it may be best to get a sitter," says Crouch.
Know your own kids
Does your child want to attend the service? Were your children close to the deceased? These are important questions to address when making this difficult decision. My younger son won't want to go and neither boy had a close relationship with his great-grandfather, so I am leaning towards not taking them. I will let my older son decide for himself. Funerals can help kids grieve just as they help adults grieve, but only you as a parent can gauge if your kids can sit through a service and whether or not they're emotionally prepared for it.
Create your own memorial rituals
Kids who don't attend a funeral still need a way to grieve. Establish a new ritual that works for your family. "The child won't have the context of the funeral to understand burial or cremation so it will be important to first explain these things in a simple and honest way," says Haley. At that point, you can improvise your own memorial. It might be at your loved one's resting place or at a place your family associates with your loved one. Haley suggests allowing your child to talk about what they love and miss about the loved one they lost. "Additionally, consider creating rituals for special days throughout the year like birthday and holidays," she says.