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Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Should you take a child to a funeral?

Should a 7- or 8-year-old attend a grandparent's funeral? What about a 5-year-old, or a 3- or 4-year-old? Is age even the issue? It's the lucky families among us who never have to deal with this issue. But just in case, here's a column from 1998 that's among my oldies but goodies.

In this or any of my columns, you may be surprised at some of the experts' suggestions. For instance, would you ever think to include a child in choosing a grandparent's casket?

This seems like a good point to remind everyone that the driving force for me in writing my columns throughout the years was to help parents understand developmentally what was going on for a child vis a vis a particular issue, and to offer appropriate coping mechanisms. The thinking behind that is that if you know what fuels a child's behavior -- if you know what cognitive, social and emotional equipment they bring to the moment -- you are better able to feed into their strengths rather than their weaknesses. That, in turn, reduces power struggles and helps to establish a loving, trusting relationship which, in my mind, is what good parenting is all about.

There is, however, a big caveat, and this is true not only of my writing, but of any expert you ever come across in your parenting route: Parents -- and parents alone -- know their child best. An expert can provide you with the most up-to-the-minute research, the hot new professionals' thinking. That doesn't make it right for you and your family. My hope has always been that my writing would inform parents but that, in the end, they would weigh the information carefully: "Does this make sense for my child? For my family?"

So, no, you may not want to take your child along to choose his grandfather's casket.

The Boston Globe

When funerals loom, choices give kids a sense of control

Child Caring

By Barbara F. Meltz, Globe Staff

When Lexi Brawer's grandpa died recently, her parents couldn't decide if she should go to the funeral. Lexi had just turned 7. Her father, Jeff, thought she was too young; her mother, Marcie, wasn't so sure. "I worried she'd feel left out of the family if she wasn't included," she says.

Amid grief, especially when a death is sudden, it's not unusual for parents to react as this Brookline father did, instinctively wanting to shield young children from adult mourning.

But what about their mourning?

Although children's grief looks different from ours because it can come and go with seemingly no rhyme or reason, children of all ages, like adults, need to acknowledge the reality of the death, share the pain and loss with others, and remember the person who has died. Keeping them from a funeral inhibits all that from happening, according to children's grief specialists.

The consensus among professionals today is that even a 3-year-old can go to a loved one's funeral.

"If a child is old enough to go to church services, that's old enough to go to a funeral," says Rabbi Earl Grollman of Lexington, a bereavement specialist and chairman of the National Center of Death Education at Mount Ida College in Newton.

Indeed, studies shows that children who have the hardest time after a death are those who either aren't allowed to go to the funeral or are forced to go, says researcher Donna Schuurman, director of the Dougy Center of Portland, Ore., a support program for grieving children.

Children who cope best feel they have choices. "It gives them a sense of control at a time when everything feels so out of control," says psychologist Alan Wolfelt, who also specializes in children's bereavement.

There are more choices to offer than we may realize. Does she want to write or read something for the service? Does he want to put something in the casket? What about helping choose the casket? Even a child as young as 4 can help with that, according to Schuurman. The idea may feel jarring to us, but it makes good developmental sense. "It provides a sense of control and involvement and closure," she says.

That's because a child copes better when he can see and touch and be part of reality. "Otherwise," says Wolfelt, "what he imagines can be far worse than the truth." Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., he is author of "Healing the Bereaved Child" (Companion Press).

Offering a choice is not a matter of simply asking, "Do you want to . . ." however. Any child who has never been to a funeral, including 8 to 12 year olds who may have read or heard about them, needs considerable advance preparation.

"Keep it simple - 'It's a ceremony to remember the person who died' - but anticipate how concrete children are in their thinking, even older children," says grief specialist Steve Woods of the Caring Place in Pittsburgh. For instance:

Even though you say Grandpa is dead, a child under 6 still thinks death is reversible. Tell him, "His body stopped working. It doesn't eat or talk or breathe anymore." Be prepared to repeat yourself.

If you talk about "the body," kids typically imagine it headless. That alone could be the reason she doesn't want to go to the funeral. Tell her, "Daddy's whole body is in the casket, and it looks like it always did - head, arms, legs, everything."

If you believe Daddy goes to heaven, it's his soul that goes there; the body is in the ground. (Stay away from using the word "spirit"; that conjures up ghosts.)

Explain also why we have funerals. "Tell him one way we remember a person is to tell stories about him, including happy ones," says Wolfelt; that anticipates confusion he may have from being at the funeral home and seeing people laughing. Describe also who will be there: " 'Lots of people we don't know will come because they knew Grandpa and cared about him, too.' That will make him feel good," he says.

Once you have had conversations like this, you can pose "do you want to . . ." questions, with one other caveat, says Schuurman: "Encourage, don't force." For instance, " 'I'd like you to be with us, but if you don't want to, it's OK.' " Most children want to go once they realize the whole family is going.

A young child who doesn't want to go probably has unanswered questions, says Grollman. He urges parents not to shame her by saying things like, "Didn't you love Grandma?" but to be respectful: "OK. Can you tell me why?" It will often be something simple -- "Who will I sit next to?" -- or concrete: "How do they put her in the ground?" Many young children are unable to verbalize their worry, so try to do it for them even if you're repeating yourself: "Some kids worry the body doesn't have a head. You know it does, right?"

If a child 8 or older doesn't want to go, it's likely an egocentric concern. Probe deeper: "Are you worried about your math test? Do you think your teacher would give you a makeup?"

If he still doesn't want to go, Schuurman's advice is to back off. Woods would back off only if a child exhibits extreme anxiety. Otherwise, he would say, "This is something we do as a family." Wolfelt falls somewhere in between: "I'd give more than a choice but without forcing: 'We really want you to come. Can you think about it more?' "

Wolfelt is big on finding ways to involve children in funeral rituals. A strategy he likes is to ask them to use descriptive phases to make an acrostic of a grandparent's name. His favorite comes from Sarah, 6, whose grandmother's name was Tootsie. Her acrostic began with, "T, tells stories," and ended with, "E, eats ribs." During the wake, she proudly displayed it next to the casket.

And what about the burial? "Children should go," says Grollman. "It's the best visual aid in the world. Two weeks later, when the preschooler asks, 'When is Daddy coming back,' you can say: 'Remember how his body was in that special box? And we watched them put the box in the ground?' " Grollman is author of "Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child" (Beacon Press).

Whether it's at the visitation, funeral, burial, or a mourning period afterward, children will say and do things that surprise you. Like play tag at the funeral home, peer into the casket, or examine the gravesite for bugs. "Don't reprimand," says Wolfelt. "No question is inappropriate. Children do not have an innate fear of death. That's a learned response."

If a 5-year-old peers into a half-lidded casket, for instance, it's to make sure the legs weren't cut off. It's natural curiosity, not ghoulishness, that prompts a 7 year old to ask, "Is his blood still in him? (Answer: "After a person dies, there's something called embalming that gets the body ready for burial. One thing it does is take the blood out.")

Not surprisingly, it is the open casket that typically makes parents unsure about a child's attendance. Wolfert says seeing the body can actually help a child and in families where it is not part of the ritual, he tells parents not to refuse a child who asks to see it and to offer it as a choice: "Since you helped me pick the dress Mommy's body is going to be buried in, would you like to see how she looks?"

Lexi Brawer, who did go to her grandfather's funeral, sat on her mom's lap for most of the service. "The only time she stepped away from me was at the burial," says Marcie. "When they lowered the casket, she wanted to see where it was going, and how deep it was, and why they were putting dirt on it."

Later, while they were driving her older sister, Leigh, to camp, there was a moment of closure that even Hollywood couldn't have scripted better. Looking out the car window, Leigh spotted a rainbow.

"It's beaming Grandpa up!" exclaimed Lexi.


Don't wait until a death to discuss funerals. Look for conversation openers, read a book, visit a cemetery.

It should be a child's choice to touch or kiss the body. Tell her in advance it will be cold.

If you expect to be overcome with grief or too distracted to answer questions, assign some other loving adult to be with your child, even though you may also be at his side.

When explaining cremation, the body isn't "burned." It's "put in a room with lots of heat until it turns to ashes."

Expect clergy and the funeral home director to include your children in conversations and/or to answer questions.

Explain that flowers, food, and contributions are symbols of love for the person who has died and for your family.

It's OK to cry or even sob in front of your child as long she sees you are able to gain control and be yourself again.

After a burial, a young child may wonder when you are going to dig Grandpa up. It's just that kids are used to burying things and digging them back up. A simple answer will do: "Once a person's body is buried, that's where it stays."

Posted by Barbara Meltz at 10:17 AM
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