When Nikki and Andrew’s close family friend died of cancer, they had to decide whether their daughter, Eileen, who was 7 at the time, should attend the funeral. Eileen was very close with their friend’s daughter.
“Eileen had never been to a funeral and was so young,” Nikki says. “We wanted to be honest, but we didn’t want to unduly burden her.”
Nikki and Andrew decided to tell their daughter, as simply and honestly as possible, what the funeral would be like. They explained how a funeral is a way for a family to say goodbye to a loved one and also celebrate the person’s entrance into eternal life.
“Eileen said she wanted to go. At the funeral she saw the grief of her friend as well as other family members,” Nikki says. “I had been tempted to leave her at home, so I could deal with my own grief alone. But walking the path with my daughter, holding her hand, helped me process this, too. Now, three years later, she told me that she is grateful she went—that it was hard to say goodbye, but she was glad to be included.”
When tragedy strikes, parents are often in a quandary. In the midst of their own grief and pain, they must also determine how best to approach the situation with their children. Parents who have navigated difficult circumstances with children say that while there is no one-size-fits-all way to handle grief, there are elements that all parents can keep in mind.
Children need to take part in the goodbye. Often, especially for children over 8, this means going to the wake or funeral. If a funeral does not feel appropriate for your child, however, you can create another ritual at home. Gather the family, light a candle, pass around a photo, and talk about memories you have of the person. Close with a prayer.
It is important for children to be able to cry, talk about the loved one, and receive comfort. Whether this is done at a funeral or at home, the child will recognize that time is being set aside to remember, to be sad, and to honor the person’s life on earth and their continued life with God.
When a 6-year-old friend of their children died of cancer, Nancy and Scott brought their two children, about the same age, to the funeral. “We thought it was important for them to be part of it and see people being sad,” Scott says. “Each child was given a flower when they entered the church and were encouraged at offertory to come up and put it in a vase on the altar.”
Give grief the time it requires. Grief has its own timeline for children as well as for adults. According to the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: “Once children accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the child, making it clear that the child has permission to show his or her feelings openly or freely.”
Kris, a mother of three, explains that honoring the person’s life can continue at special family events later. “On each of the children’s birthdays, we buy one extra balloon for my mom—their grandma—in heaven. We gather all the guests and release the balloon. Usually our oldest daughter, Sam, who is 9, says a few words to Nani.”
Be open to the gifts of your children. When Maria’s 37-year-old brother died suddenly and unexpectedly, her then 5-year-old son, Christian, stayed right next to her for the entire wake and visitation. “I felt a strong need to stay with the casket and the body,” Maria says. “To me it was care of my brother. I needed to be with him in his death in order to understand how to let go.
“I still find it remarkable how every time I approached my brother, Christian went with me. He wasn’t afraid. He sensed my need for goodbye, and I think he felt a need to offer to me any ounce of strength he knew how to offer.”
While parents should not expect their children to be able to comfort them, they should look carefully for what the child is trying to offer. Some children, like Christian, will offer support beautifully, while others will do it awkwardly. Whichever the case, a parent can show their appreciation for the effort and intent.
By Annemarie Scobey, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2013 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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Photo: istock/©Adam Korzeniewski