Some people are very lucky and don’t have to go to a funeral until they are older. They can fully grasp and understand what has happened and going to happen.
This is not always the case and sometimes you will need to explain the process to a child. So, how do you actually explain a funeral to a child who is attending one?
You need to explain it in as simple words as possible and do not lie to the child. How you will explain it and the words that you use will depend on the age and the maturity of the child. The younger the child the harder it will be to convey what has happened and how a funeral is going to happen.
Even as adults funerals can be seen as a strange thing to people. As a child, this holds especially true. They could be very confused about what is happening and why it is happening.
If you have a child that you want to attend a funeral, I have some strategies, methods, and tips to help to explain to them in a gentle way.
Should I bring my child to the funeral?
If you have a child that you love, you always want to protect them from the depressing and difficult parts of life. Depending on how you look at a funeral this could be both.
But having them understand a funeral is a key part of the grieving process and part of life. Having them learn that we all will die one day is an important lesson to learn.
Whether the child attends the funeral or not is entirely up to you. For some children, having them attend the funeral will help them move on and help with the grief process.
The main question that parents will ask themselves is at what age should a child attend a funeral. The short answer is there is no exact age and that you should ask the child. You can read more about At what age should a child attend the funeral in another article I wrote here.
You as the parent or guardian have to decide in the end whether or not the child is ready and then give them a choice. What you do not want to do is to force them to attend. It can not only be detrimental to them it could raise issues later.
What is death and how do I explain it to my child?
Death is natural and this is something that we all have to learn about it. It is best to get an explanation of this from a parent or guardian.
This way the child trusts the source and can be more open to asking questions. You will know your child’s maturity level best but in general, children start to understand more complex concepts around the age of 7.
Starting with the physical aspects of death is a good way to breach the subject. Talking about how the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, the heart doesn’t pump any more blood so nothing else is going to work as the lungs, brain, etc. This will give them a good idea of what is happening.
If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, this could be a bit more tricky for them to grasp as there is not a way to show them what is happening. But by being clear and simple, using the concrete concepts will be helpful.
Don’t use euphemisms as even for adults these can be confusing to some, your child needs to understand reality. The child trusts you, so rely on that and be confident as you can be when talking about this.
If you need more assistance or feel it might be better to have someone else around that is also a good idea. Religious leaders or therapists are trained in this and would be happy to assist.
What is the purpose of a funeral?
Before you even ask the child if they want to go to the funeral they should know what the purpose of a funeral is.
They might have heard about it before or have seen them in cartoons but making sure they know is the first step. Having never attended one before, they won’t know the purpose of it.
When speaking to a child through this whole process you want to use simple and truthful answers. Do not lie to them by saying things like “grandma is taking a rest or sleeping.”
You want to state the truth the whole time “remember I told you that grandma is not around anymore? Well, she died and we are going to have a funeral. A funeral is a time for all of her friends and family to come together. They will sit around and talk about her to remember her. Some people may share stories about her and others may not. It is up to them if they want to talk or not. We all of us miss her, and this funeral will help us. Do you want to talk? What do you remember about her? What will you miss her? Do you want to go?“
This is just an example of what one may say, the child may have a lot of questions and it probably won’t be as smooth but adapt it to your child and situation.
By breaking it down, it will help your child get an idea of what the funeral is and how it works. Hopefully, they can make the most informed decision (with their understanding) on whether to go or not.
This is not a time to get into the nitty-gritty details, keep it simple, age-appropriate and don’t scare them. They don’t have to attend the whole thing as that is also an option.
How do I help my child through the funeral?
If your child has decided to attend the funeral, you need to make sure they have your support. This is a completely new experience and most likely scary.
You need to talk to them through it and help them know what to expect. Ultimately, it’s about preparing them and guiding them through one of the hardest things in life so they can deal with the loss for themselves in a healthy way.
Also be aware that you, even as the adult, are dealing with the same loss as your child. Depending on the relationship to the deceased and the familial support network you may need time for yourself during the funeral to truly grieve, at which point you won’t be fully available to the child in question. Again, planning is key.
1: Preparation is key
With most things in life, you learn that being prepared will make you feel more comfortable and when you do something or go somewhere new. By going through the whole process step by step and discussing each thing that they will see (casket, preacher, paul bearer, flowers, etc.).
Also, remember that this will not only be mentally tiring but physically, funerals are often all-day events and with a small child they will also get tired. Make sure that they are aware and prepared for this as well.
The sooner you start the process of explaining and preparing them the better. There are a few reasons for this.
First, the sooner you tell them, the more time they have to start to try to comprehend and it hopefully will be more digestible.
The second point is that by doing this you are also able to explain it in parts. You don’t have to try to explain everything at once, you can do it in small doses. The main point of all this is to get rid of as much of the child’s anxiety as possible while preparing them for this new experience while they are grieving.
3: Teach them about funeral etiquette
Every part of the funeral will be new, to your child and this includes how to act, and this is why it is also important to discuss how to behave and act at a funeral compared to other places.
Etiquette includes what people wear, “Most people will be wearing dark clothes, they do this to show their grief and sadness.” While you want them to be respectful and quieter than normal make sure that they know if they have any questions it is ok to ask.
You know your child best and what they are like. This may be a time to bring up certain types of behavior that are not really acceptable at the funeral such as yelling or running. They may see them as harmless, but go into why you shouldn’t do them there as gently as possible.
4: Having feelings is OK
This may be one of the hardest things to explain to your child. Since everyone shows their emotions in different ways you cannot just explain one feeling.
Talking about how people will be sad there, and that’s okay. That it is natural to be sad after someone dies. But not everyone shows sadness and they may be quiet at the funeral. Your feelings are always not limited to happiness and sadness though and if you feel a need to laugh and talk about the person it is also ok.
Making sure it is clear to the child that all their feelings are okay, even if they don’t understand what that fully means. If they want to cry, that’s ok. If they don’t, that’s ok, too.
5: Talk about the emotions they may see in you and others
Even for adults, emotions are not easy to show, so as a child sees these, they try to identify and learn about these emotions.
You are going to be the most important example for the child to follow. Tell them your feeling about the person who has died. Doing this will help to assure them that their feelings are normal and natural. They will be watching you how you are grieving, they are going to learn how to handle their own emotions and processes this way.
Children have the same emotions as adults, they just don’t always know where they come from and why. They are used to being the one showing those emotions, so seeing adults show these could be jarring for them. We all show our emotions in different ways.
6: They will have questions before, during and after
Children are naturally inquisitive, and not afraid to ask questions. Trying to answer their questions as best you can, honestly and without prejudice.
By asking these questions, they are processing the death and trying to figure out what is going on in their minds. They will also ask them at times that may seem inappropriate. By telling them before that it is ok to ask at any time will alleviate some of their stress.
These questions may just be “What is happening? to something more complex like “Where do we go when we die?”
Anticipating these types of questions is the best option but if not, you may have to go to responses such as “Let’s find out.” I don’t know.” We will talk about this later” (If it is an inopportune time, but do make sure that you do go back to it).
This helps in a way to signal to them that not everyone has all the answers and you can learn and process together.
7: Follow up after the funeral
As you are still grieving after the actual funeral the child will be as well. They are going to have a lot to digest what they saw. They may be even more confused after the funeral than they were before. It is good to check in with them over the following days, weeks and even months to help them along and process what has occurred.
They may seem fine and have no questions but this could just be their way of coping. Try to encourage them to share with you how they are feeling. They may not want to share with you and that is ok, you can also seek professional help. There is no shame in that and they may feel more comfortable talking to someone else.
Some tips and things to remember
Accidents will happen
Even with the best preparation and coaching, you will have to keep in mind, kids will be kids and with this, there will be some bumps and a few incidents. The younger they are the more likely this is to happen. Most people will be understanding of this but it may get too distracting for others.
Being ready to take them to a safe space to calm them down for a little bit maybe the best idea. During this time you can try to understand what they are feeling and try to explain to them why this behavior could be distracting to others. You do not want to scold them and make them feel that they have done something wrong, they are still children and need to be shown love, especially on this day.
We all mourn differently and this includes children
Your child might be very emotional and cry the whole time, or they may not. You should not force or tell children what they should feel or how long they should feel this.
If there are other children at the funeral they may want to play with them and it may seem that they don’t care about what is happening. They do but just are dealing with it their own way and this is healthy.
Try to still let a child be a child during this trying time and not push them to act a certain way. If the behavior is disturbing to others you need to explain to them that there is an acceptable and unacceptable way to act at a funeral and that they need to be respectful of the other people there. Hopefully, that is all they need during the funeral.
Pay attention to their needs
What are their reactions, how are they feeling? What it looks like and how they respond to your question may be two different things. It is important to let your child learn how to process the death and funeral, you also should give them the option to escape.
This could be a special place or even just going outside to get some air. For some, this may not even be necessary and will be a surprise, but it is always better to be ready in any case.
Often it is possible that you can take your child to visit the places where the funeral will take place ahead of time. Most funeral homes and places of worship have dealt with this before and would be happy to oblige.
This way you can show them where everything is going to be where the rest area is, bathrooms, water fountains, and play area, etc.
You can remind them that they don’t have to stay there the whole time, it is a long day and if they are old enough and there is some sort of supervision around they can go elsewhere. If there is a responsible teenager or young adult there this could work out as a babysitter.
If the child wants to see the deceased but feels uncomfortable with all the people around, you can request a special viewing for them. If this service is offered the funeral director may be able to meet with the children to explain what happens. This is not offered everywhere but could be an option.
Helpful books for talking about death with a child
Below is a list of different books appropriate to different ages which you can find in your local book shop. For your convenience, I have added links to Amazon so that you can check the latest deals and availability.
The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
For ages: 3 years +
My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
For ages: 3 years +
Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley
For ages: 4 years +
Tess’s Tree by Jess M. Brallier
For ages: 4 years +
A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M Holmes, Sasha J Mudlaff & Cary Pillo
For ages: 4 years +
When I Feel Sad by Cornelia Maude Spelman
For ages: 4 years +
Scaredy Squirrel by Mélanie Watt
For ages: 4 years +
Only One You by Linda Kranz
For ages: 4 years +
Dear Mister Rogers, Does It Ever Rain in Your Neighborhood? by Fred Rogers
For ages: 4 years +
Peaceful Piggy Meditation by Kerry Lee MacLean
For ages: 5 years +
Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen
For ages: 5 years +
When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown
For ages: 6 years +
Will my cat eat my eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty
For ages: 9 years +
How do I explain cremation to a child?
As for all the explanation, you want to keep it short and simple. It could go something like this,
“There is a special building called a crematorium. In it, there is a room where they make a fire, but this isn’t like the one you see in a fireplace. Since grandma not alive anymore she will not feel anything. When we are not alive the body does not feel any pain or the heat from the fire. This fire is really hot, hotter than a normal fire and will turn grandma’s body to ashes. After the body is turned to ashes like in a fireplace, they will be put into a small container called an urn. The urn can be taken home, but at a special place or even have the ashes scattered where grandma loved to be.”
Commonly asked questions from children and how to answer them
- Do I have to go to the funeral? You should never force a child to go to a funeral. Let them make their own decision, but in doing this make sure that they are informed as best as they could be on what is going to happen and why.
- Where is the bathroom, water fountain, etc. ? If possible a pre-visit or getting there a bit early to show them around the place will not only help to confront them but makes things easier during the service if they need to use a facility.
- Will there be other kids there? Can I play? These two questions will vary but hopefully, the answer is yes to both of them. If you can have a quiet place for them to play if they need to and with other children would be best. This may be how they cope.
- What do we wear to the funeral? People usually wear dark clothes to show that they are mourning. But you do not have to, you can wear what makes you feel comfortable.
- Why do people dress up? People dress up to show respect to the person who has died and their families.
- How long is the funeral? There is no exact time. Just make sure to go through all the time frames that this one will have.
- Will people cry at the funeral? Yes, some people will cry and others won’t; everyone grieves and shows emotions differently. There is no wrong way to grieve.
- What happens after the funeral? Explain that after everything and all the day’s events, they will go back to your home. Where they can play and ask any questions that they need.
- Will it hurt? No, it will not hurt, they are already dead and they don’t feel any pain.
- Why do people die? People die for many different reasons. Some die because they are old, others are sick, and some people have accidents.
- When do people die? People usually die when they are very old, but people die all the time. This is part of nature’s cycle.
- Is death forever? Yes, it is, once you die you cannot come back. That is why we have funerals to say goodbye.
- Where do you go when you die? This one will depend greatly on your beliefs and you may want the help from a religious leader on this one if possible.
- What happened to ___ , the person who died? This is a delicate one to handle. While it may be possible to just see what has happened if they are old or had some sort of illness. If they had a death from something like suicide, you do not want to lie to them but be gentle and choose your words carefully.
- Am I going to die soon? No, you are not. You are young, healthy and safe with us.
- Are you going to die soon? No, I am not. As we talked about before, people that die are usually sick or elderly. I am going to be around you for a long time.
- Why do we put them in the ground? We put them in the ground because it is a tradition. Every culture, group of people have different ones and ours is that when you die we say goodbye at the funeral and then put them into the ground.
Keywords that they should know.
- Ashes –The ashes are the body after it has been put into a special fire.
- Burial/Buried- We put the body into the ground as a tradition.
- Casket/Coffin-This is a special box that is made to put a body into.
- Cemetery- This place is where we go to bury people. There are many other people buried here.
- Cremation- This is the process of heating up the body in a fire to turn it into ashes.
- Dead/Deceased– When someone’s body stops working for different reasons they die.
- Emotions- Happiness, sadness, anger, etc. are the major ones that people feel when they are at a funeral.
- Funeral- The is the whole process of honoring and burying the loved one. This is when all people come together to do this.
- Funeral home-This is the place where the body is prepared and we go to see it say goodbye.
- Grave/ Graveyard-The hole that we put the body into at the cemetery. A graveyard is a place where many people are buried.
- Grieve- Is an emotion that feels when someone has left us. Everyone does this differently and you have to do what you feel is most comfortable.
- Headstone- This is the rock that is placed on the grave to honor ___. It also shows where they are in the cemetery.
- Laid to rest- This is a phrase used to talk out putting someone in the cemetery.
- Last Respects- When you go up to the body to say goodbye in your own way, whether it is to say a few words or to just view the body.
- Obituary- A short piece written about the deceased talking about their life.
- Pallbearer- The people who help carry the casket at the funeral.
- RIP- Rest in Peace, commonly written on headstones and said to say goodbye.
- Service- Part of the funeral where people or a religious figure talks about the deceased.
- Viewing- You have the chance to go up to the body to say your last respects before the body is put into the ground.
Websites and services for dealing with grief
One thing that we rarely think about, that we should is the end of life costs and expenses. We pay most of our bills without a second thought, but these are often much smaller amounts than the...
When someone has passed away, even if it is expected, those left dealing with the end of life and funeral arrangements can face some challenges. Often, in addition to the emotional reaction to the...