Funerals and memorial services can be a beautiful time and space to honor life. These events can offer comfort and solace to those grieving, however they can also be a little overwhelming, especially to a child who might not understand what is happening or why everyone is so sad.
If you’re attending an upcoming funeral or memorial service, you may be wondering if it’s appropriate for your kids to go with you. While that decision is one you and your family will have to make on your own, our guide can help you learn how to prepare for a funeral if you do decide to have your children attend.
How to prepare your children for a funeral or memorial service
We understand that broaching the conversation of death with a child can be complicated, but it’s important to do so before expecting your kids to attend a memorial service. After all, a funeral can potentially feel confusing, scary, and even traumatizing for children if they’re not prepared for what they’ll experience.
If you’ve decided to bring your children to a funeral or memorial service, we’ve outlined a guide on how to prepare your children for a funeral with advice and answers to some frequently asked questions to help you navigate this difficult time.
Explain what they should expect
Figuring out how to prepare children for a funeral can feel overwhelming as you’re probably already experiencing an emotional time with the death of your loved one. But being open and honest with your children about what they can expect will go a long way in helping them and you feel more prepared and less anxious.
One of the best ways to prepare children is by telling them what it’s like to attend a funeral. What can your children expect to see, hear, smell, and touch? Understanding what they might encounter can take some of the fear and anxiety out of the situation.
While funerals will differ based on culture and religion, try your best to describe what the funeral service might entail. Let your kids know that they may see people crying and that it’s okay for them to cry, too. Also, go into some detail about the different aspects of the service, like the visitation, prayers, eulogy, and funeral reception so they can create a picture in their minds.
You’ll also want to specifically talk about the casket or cremated remains, if that will be present. If you’re unsure if there will be a casket at the funeral, ask the family. For an open casket, take extra care when explaining this aspect of the service. For example, describe what the body may look, smell, and feel like and how to pay your respects. If there is a closed casket or the body will be created, explain this to your child as well so they don’t feel confused when they see a casket or urn in the front of the venue.
Finally, explain what attendees are expected to do, and assure your kids you won’t force them to do anything they’re not comfortable doing. Since these are sensitive subjects, be prepared for questions and be patient if it takes some time for them to understand.
Expect a lot of questions
Questions might come all at once or they might trickle in, but your children are bound to have some questions. While you might not know all the answers, try to be honest and open about what you do know.
If your children have more questions than you feel comfortable or qualified to answer, consider seeking out grief counseling or support groups geared toward children who are coping with a loss. These professional services are designed to help children process, cope, and heal after losing someone close to them.
Validate their feelings
When it comes to helping your children cope with grief and process the concept of death, it’s crucial to allow them the safe space to feel and express their emotions. Tell them that it’s okay to experience a wide range of feelings during this time and encourage them to feel and explore each one.
To help support your children, share the kinds of emotions you’re experiencing. Are you feeling angry, sad, and confused? Or do you feel a sense of peace knowing your loved one is no longer suffering? When sharing your feelings, make sure to remind them that these are your feelings and their emotions may be different. Grief is a complex feeling and hearing that others are going through something similar can provide some comfort to your children.
Look for ways to include them
If your children are old enough to understand what is going on and are comfortable participating in front of a group of people, you might consider ways they can play a small role in the service. For example, they could read a poem, sing a song, or deliver a speech. If they do want to participate in this way, make arrangements with those planning the funeral so they can accommodate.
However, your children don’t have to publicly participate in the service. Instead, ask if there’s a special way they’d like to privately honor their loved one. Maybe they’d like to draw a picture, write a letter, or leave something special in the coffin, like a photo or stuffed animal.
Take extra time with them
With all of the activities and arrangements leading up to the funeral, your children may feel ignored or forgotten, especially if you are involved in the planning. Since this is a confusing and sensitive time for children, try to spend some dedicated time alone with them so they’ll feel loved and validated.
This could be something as simple as going to get ice cream together or picking out a new outfit to wear. Or, take them to the park to play and forget all about the funeral for an hour or so. Likewise, if their favorite aunt or your best friend is available to spend time with them, ask if they can help out and give your kids some one-on-one time too.
Honor your children’s wishes
Funerals can be stressful and even a little confusing for children, so give your kids the opportunity to make decisions and even change their minds. Even though they wanted to attend the day before, they might have different feelings the day of as it gets closer. Because this is a fragile and sensitive time, don’t force them to participate, as this could do more harm than good.
If your kids decide not to attend, continue to have open conversations about the funeral and encourage them to bring up any questions or concerns they may have along the way.
Ensure they have support
If you’re playing a role in the service, consider asking a close family friend or relative to support and care for your children during the service. This allows you to be fully present during the service and gives you peace of mind that your kids aren’t alone. Whether it’s your brother or best friend, they can reassure your kids during the service and even leave early if it’s too much for them to handle.
Find appropriate attire
If your children decide to attend the memorial service, you’ll want to find something appropriate for them to wear. Acceptable children and toddler funeral attire will depend on the kind of service you are attending. For a funeral, attendees typically wear formal attire in dark colors, like black, gray, and navy blue. Clothing for a memorial service may be a little less formal. Sometimes, those hosting the service may request everyone to wear a specific color in honor of the deceased.
If you are unsure about what to wear, feel free to reach out to those planning and ask. Or, you can choose something solid or neutral for your children to wear, while avoiding anything flashy or distracting.
Read more: What to wear to a memorial service
Check in with them after the funeral
Death and funerals can bring up a lot of different emotions and questions for children. Often they don’t even understand what is happening. It’s important to check in with your children about their feelings in the days and weeks following the funeral. Ask if they have questions and see how they’re doing. Providing your young ones with a safe space to reflect and process their experiences can help them on their grief journey.
How old should a child be before attending a funeral?
It’s hard to say what is an appropriate age to attend a funeral because each child is different. Many parents bring babies and toddlers to funerals, as they’re not yet old enough to understand, so this question really comes down to those children who can grasp what’s going on. In this case, it’s less about their age and more about what’s best for your individual child. Start by discussing what a funeral entails to gauge whether your child is ready or interested in attending. Be ready to respect whatever decision your child makes.
Should children go to open casket funerals?
Again, it depends on the individual child. Some parents feel comfortable bringing children as young as four years old to view an open casket, while others wait until they’re around seven years old or older. If your child is old enough to understand what’s happening, we recommend having an open conversation about the funeral and letting your child decide if they’d like to view the casket. Regardless of your child’s decision, it’s important to be supportive.
How do you prepare a child for the death of a family member?
Being honest about the situation is one of the best ways to prepare a child. During the conversation, allow your child to process everything and ask questions on their own time. Offer your support and let them know it’s ok to have many different emotions. For additional guidance, you may want to seek help from a professional grief counselor.
Navigating how to prepare your children for a funeral can be uncomfortable and emotional, but as long as you focus on being honest and straightforward while keeping the lines of communication open, you can help your children prepare for what’s to come.