Preparing Children for a Funeral or Wake

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The death of a special person is a difficult time for a family. You are grieving over the loss of that person. At the same time, you are heartbroken for any members that are also directly affected by the loss. While this hurricane of emotions is going on in your head, you can only imagine the new feelings a child must be experiencing. This can be a scary, confusing thing for children to observe and experience. It is our job as parents to do our best to prepare them for this type of situation.

*I am a Christian so some of the references in this blog do talk about Heaven.

Should The Children Attend These Events?

Often we feel that we must shelter children from the ideas of death. It feels almost like a taboo thing to discuss with children and yet is a normal part of life. Cemeteries have become an eerie place of fear from things viewed in moves and television instead of a place of remembrance. It is my belief that if children are prepared for what they will see and experience, attending such things will be healthy for them. However, I respect everyone in their own personal decisions. Ultimately you know what is best for your family. Follow your gut.

The traditions such as funerals and wakes that follow a death are put in place to help everyone have closure. It is a time for everyone to remember that loved one and say goodbye to them. In an article from Psychology Today, it discusses how “throughout history funerals have met the needs of adult mourners to acknowledge the death, honor the life of the deceased, and provide social support and comfort.” The children in their study responded two years later with feelings that the funeral met those same needs for them.

If you should choose to take your children to a funeral or wake here are some important things to think about:

Open and Honest Communication Is Crucial

This is the beautiful moment when all three of the girls placed their hands on Great Grandpa’s hand and told him they loved him.
People they love will be sad or crying.

Prepare them ahead of time for what is going happen and what things they will see. Make sure that they understand that they will see many people that they love sad or crying. Help them to understand that it is a normal feeling because they will not be seeing the person who has passed away again until they go to Heaven. Just like they are sad when they must leave someone for a time, adults can be sad too when someone leaves. It is good for children to see other people showing and expressing their emotions. Children need to know that these emotions are natural and healthy.

What should they do when someone they love is crying?

Talk to children about what things they can do when they notice a loved one crying. Let them know that it is a good time to show empathy for that person. Ask them what things help them feel better when they are sad. Many of those ideas are things they could do for the grieving adults. A simple hug, “I love you”, or holding that person’s hand can go a long way in comforting someone.

What will they see?

Open caskets and viewings of the deceased are very common in traditional funerals. Seeing the person that everyone has told you is gone can be very confusing for children. Prepare them ahead of time that they will be seeing the outer shell or body of that special person so that they can have a final time to say goodbye. Explain that the actual person is their heart and brain. Their heart/brain is up in heaven watching over us. (I chose to use heart and brain versus the soul because it is a little more concrete for them to understand. The soul or spirit is a very abstract concept for children.)  What we are seeing is only their outer shell or leftover body. Once they get to heaven they get new healthy bodies so they do not need the outer shell they leave behind.

Let them know that it will look like that person is fast asleep. Their eyes will be closed and they will not move. Also, you may want to talk with them about how they might not look exactly how they remember them but they do not need to be afraid.

Establish Clear Behavior Expectations

It is important for children to be calm, quiet, and respectful in such an emotionally trying time. As a parent, we must prepare them for this situation. We can’t assume that they know how to act. Giving examples help the children clearly know what is expected of them. Depending on the age of the child, it may be helpful to pack a few quiet things that they can do independently.

Is it okay to be happy?

Children bring a refreshing air to such a sad time. Often their joyful innocence is a welcomed distraction. It is okay to be happy because a funeral is a celebration of someone’s life. They do need to know though that their happiness needs to be calm and respectful. It can be a time for them to talk about fun things they did with that person or happy memories they might have. Sharing these memories can bring comfort as we remember the love that was shared because of that person.

Military Honors

If the deceased person served our county and an honor guard detail is coming to honor them, it is important to warn children that they will be firing three volleys from rifles. The loud gunshot can be startling. Explain to them that this is actually an honor and in the military signaled that the dead were cleared and properly cared for. At the time of the shots, let them know they are coming. Cover their ears if need be to help muffle the sound.

Remember that children can sense when you are not being forthright with them. Make sure they know that they are able to ask any questions that they might have. Let them share their thoughts and feelings and validate them.

Children that are old enough to love, are old enough to grieve.


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