Ok, here’s a big question for parents – should your child attend the funeral of a family member, friend, classmate, or neighbor? Maybe we should begin with why we have funerals. Funerals are a ceremony, a ritual that serves important functions. It is an occasion to celebrate the life of a deceased person and acknowledge the reality of his or her death. Funerals are a step in the mourning process.
Let’s be honest. Funerals are difficult for adults and that impacts our feelings about children’s attendance. Whether you should take your child to a funeral depends on the child and the situation. If your child is old enough and wants to go, then being included can be helpful. And depending on who died, it may be important for you to have your child present.
The big issue is preparation. Explain to your child what will happen at the funeral. This includes visitation (if attending) plus before, during, and after the funeral. Talk about the setting, music, flowers, service, casket. Let your child know people will be sad and some may cry, including yourself. If you have spiritual or religious beliefs, share how death is perceived. Depending on your own relationship with the deceased, you may want to have another family member or friend be with your child. Above all, don’t leave a child to experience the events alone.
I found that taking a child to the funeral home ahead of the visitation or service is a good step. Then the child can look and ask questions. This will help both of you find comfort and meaning. Likewise, a trip to the cemetery ahead of time can relieve fears. A funeral and burial is NOT a time for surprises. Don’t assume that once the funeral is over that’s it. Set aside some quiet time to hold your child, talk about the experience, and provide a feeling of safety and comfort.
Like many kids, I grew up with pets. There were hamsters and turtles and fish and cats and dogs and chickens. Yes, chickens – remember I was a farm kid. So I tried to remember what it felt like when the pets died. I have vivid memories of some pets like my dog Boo and others not so much.
When a pet dies, the amount of information or what you say, depends on the child’s age, experiences, and maturity level. Offer your child a clear and simple explanation. Let your child’s questions guide the details you reveal.
Tell the truth. Use the actual words “death,” “dying,” or “died.” Be sure your child understands the pet’s body stopped working; it died; and will not be coming back. Do not say Baxter ran away when he really crawled in the garage and died. Do not say Penelope went to sleep and won’t wake up. Children take literally what you say and false statements will confuse them. Eventually your child will figure out you lied and that starts to complicate trust issues.
Sometimes there is a chance to say goodbye and if a child able to do so, that can be helpful. The family may want to observe the pet’s death in a special way. I remember wrapping pets in cloth, putting them in shoe boxes, and burying them in a special place. Every pet, no matter type or size, always got a burial ceremony. We talked about our pets, remembering the funny stories and antics.
And here’s one last tip. Don’t immediately get another pet. We don’t want children to think pets and people are replaceable. Wait until your child asks to get a new kitten. Then you can talk about how welcoming a new furry friend into your home is a way to honor the life of the pet that died.
Do you have a memory of a pet that died? How did your parents handle the situation? What have been your experiences with your own child?
When a child says, “I know Grandpa isn’t really dead. He’s just asleep,” how should a parent respond? As adults we know that death is an inevitable part of the life cycle. We go to funerals, send sympathy cards and offer support. Somehow we come to reconcile death as a part of life and learn to live with that knowledge. Children, too, will encounter death, but they don’t have adult coping skills. It is up to the significant adults in their lives to help children understand their feelings when a family member, friend or beloved pet dies.
Join us as we blog about how to help children as they encounter death.
I grew up in a family with an older sister and two younger brothers. We were pretty typical – playing and fighting our ways through the days. Eventually we all launched into the world as adults. We reconnected occasionally at the parental home as happens in most families. First our father died and then our mother. We were truly on our own and that sentiment is echoed by Katherine Conger, family sociologist at the University of California, Davis. She says that spouses come along later in our lives and parents eventually leave us. Siblings are with us for the whole journey.
I’ve watched other families after the death of the last parent. Sometimes a family grows apart without the common denominator of a parent and family home. In our case we forged stronger links. The connections are powerful as we no longer try to compete or change each other. We focus on what we have in common instead of our differences. This is consistent with findings that the shared early childhood experiences cast a long shadow.
All this can be comforting to parents as they referee endless arguments with their children. Some day those children may come together as good friends. It is also a reminder that it is not too late to reconnect with your own siblings. Conflicts and disagreements can be forgotten (and forgiven) and replaced by the support of those who were there from the beginning.
Have you experienced the death of one or more parents? If so, how has the relationship with your siblings changed?
Many of us have been a part of the ritual – a small box is buried under the shade tree in the back yard. This becomes the final place for our beloved canary or hamster. As parents we don’t like to think about the demise of these special members of our family, but death is a very real part of having a pet.
Pets have significantly shorter lifespans than people but some will be companions for a considerable number of years. So how do you help your child when a pet dies? A child’s reaction is tied to her age and development, previous experiences with death, as well as the intensity of attachment to the pet. Check out https://www.aplb.org/support/special-populations/ for detailed information on the reactions of children at various ages. This is a link from The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement.
As parents you can help your child honor and remember his pet in appropriate ways. Displaying photos, drawing pictures, telling stories, or holding a ceremony are possibilities.
Our family buried special dogs under the trees in the pasture where we imagined them running free. And I’ll admit to having a small urn in the closet containing my beagle’s ashes. Just the mention of Pearl’s name makes us all smile.
So how have you handled the death of pets in your family?