Grief Education
Children & Grief
Coping with Grief

How to Prepare a Child for a Funeral


from The STAR Class
by Karen Nilsen

Children need simple, honest, straightforward explanations about death. We can teach our children in the same non-threatening, caring way that we explain other milestones in their lives. We must validate their feelings and encourage them to share their thoughts, fears, and observations of the events taking place around them.

Ten or twenty years from now a child may not remember specific details of the funeral they attended, but they will remember that it was a meaningful, non-threatening experience and that they were actively involved in the final good-bye to their loved one who died.

A funeral director told me the story of a young boy, about six years old, who refused to enter the visitation room to view his grandfather’s body. He seemed inordinately upset and frightened. His parents didn’t understand his terror. After taking him aside and talking to him, the reason became clear. “I don’t want to see my grandpa without his head!” He had heard that his grandfather’s "body" was at the funeral home. He took this literally. The body would be present - he deduced that the head would not.

When explaining how the body of the deceased will appear in the casket, I am very specific. I try to cover all the bases. By previewing the room set-up, casket type, special objects present, and the clothing the deceased is wearing, I can prepare the children with the details they will see when we go together to view.

I have learned so much about how children conceptualize the mystery of death. I have discovered some of the preconceptions and misconceptions that young children share at various ages. We can read charts and graphs with information about how children perceive and grasp the concept of death, but we must be careful not to draw biased conclusions about children based solely on their age.

When someone tells me that a two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on or to be involved in the funeral process I tell the story of Danielle. In a period of six weeks, two-and-a-half-year-old Danielle had experienced the death of her grandmother and then her grandfather. When she bravely announced that her grandparents had died, she quickly added, “But, my mommy didn’t die.” What was this child worried about? What was on her little mind? Is my mommy next?

Our first instinct is to reassure young children that everything will be okay and not to worry about a parent dying. But, this two-year-old has learned that special, loved people do die. We would lose our credibility if we were to make a promise like that. With small children, I believe it is important to deal with the here and now, ie: Today your mommy and daddy are alive and well and here to love you and care for you. There will always be someone to take care of you.

For more information on the STAR Program, visit Karen's Web site



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