Written by Lifestyle Contributor, Darcy Thiel, MA, LMHC, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in NY State.
I am often asked whether children should attend wakes and funerals and my answer is always the same. It depends on your child. Kids should not be shielded from the truth of death, no matter how young they are. Of course, you need to develop age appropriate language for them.
As far as rituals go, I think it is very important to know your child and his/her personality. If they know themselves, they can make their own decision. When Frankie was just four, his grandmother died. Frankie has always been a kid that you couldn’t give pat answers to. He just wasn’t buying it. He would process things and then come up with some tough ones.
Once we went to the hospital to visit Mom, and I walked in to find her in rough shape. Her surgery scar had been leaking and her hospital gown was disheveled. Frankie saw her before I quickly shooed him away. The next day, he told me he was confused. I had told them surgeons help heal people. But he saw a scar on his grandma that the doctors had made and it was hurting her. That didn’t make sense. I did my best to explain that even when some procedures are healing, they can seem to cause pain. He remembered what a shot was like so I used that comparison.
When his grandma died shortly after that, we explained everything to him about the upcoming rituals. He understood the best he could what a funeral home, casket, etc. was. While he thought being a pall bearer with the big guys was pretty cool (including buying a suit), he decided he did not want to go to the funeral home.
On the day of the funeral, we arrived at the church to find Mom’s casket open in the back. We were not expecting that and already had said our final goodbyes. I approached Frankie one more time and he decided he wanted to see Grandma so I ushered him into the room. He stared for a moment and then I saw panic creeping in. In a truly gracious moment, I decided not to rush him outside, but instead bent down and asked him what was upsetting him. He stuttered a few times before he finally said, “Who broke her?”
After questioning him further, that poor kid saw the half open casket and thought that someone had broken his grandma’s legs off. I can’t imagine what he felt. Once I knew what was going on, I took him over to the casket and opened it up, pulled back the blanket and showed him that Grandma’s legs were fine. He was very relieved and was able to say goodbye.
I have often thought about what would have happened if I had whisked him out of the room, leaving him with that traumatized thought. Would that have changed how he dealt with his father’s death just three years later? Possibly, quite dramatically.
In the age of helicopter parenting, it is often falsely assumed that keeping our children from any pain or discomfort is optimal. I vehemently disagree. Helping children to work through their feelings (all of them!) is much more humane and useful for their long term development. Equipping them for the real world in a kind and compassionate way is what is truly in their best interest.
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