Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What is the right age for kids to go to a funeral?

If you have worked in hospice for a few weeks or health care for a few years you will probably come across this question at some point.  What is the right age to take children* to a funeral? This question is asked of everyone involved with the care of the patient not just the social worker or chaplain who you might think are natural targets for such a question.  Deeper underneath this question are ones that children may naturally have about illness, death and dying.  And of course these may be questions the parent do not feel ready to answer, thus the solicitation of guidance.

You can break down the basic answers in a couple of categories that all have their pros and cons.
  • No. Absolutely no! - Obviously this answer doesn't take into account any of the unique aspects noted below that may influence the decision.  This response often comes from the feeling that protecting children form the sadder, darker sides of life is the best thing to do.  But this may come at a price later, when the child grows up and really has a less nuanced and full understanding of how death fits with life.  Finding the teachable moment as a parent is one of the trickiest skills to master.
  • Yes. Absolutely yes! - Well if absolute one way isn't so smart, absolute in the other direction must be brilliant. (Only in politics, am I right?) Sadly an always yes statement falls into a similar trap of missing the unique identifiers which guide the most beneficial path.  Forcing children to learn about something can backfire if they are not prepared.
  • How mature is the child? - Well if you cannot answer the question with an answer, then try a question.  I have heard this often and used it occasionally.  Assessing for a child's maturity and more importantly understanding of the concept of death is not the simplest task.  Sometimes my 6 year old is very mature, often times she is not. The inherently relative nature of the question may not always be helpful. 
  • Was the child close to the person? - Closeness to the deceased may or may not be a great indicator of readiness to attend a funeral.  But if the child is cl
  • What does the child want to do? This is the BEST RESPONSE IN MY OPINION. It empowers the child to have a say in this very important family event.  From this you can get a sense if the kid feels obligated, indifferent, overwhelmed from the entire situation.  In fact with death and dying discussions with children (and even adults) the best advice I was ever given was to ask what questions they have and answer them simply and leave room for more questions and discussion.  Do not try and be an expert and explain everything to a child.  They will let you know where they want to go with the conversation if you let them.
Other considerations:
  • Plan for a separate viewing and/or ceremony for children - If you are not sure how the child may react many funeral homes can work with you and have a smaller viewing or plan a ceremony to honor the loved one.  This way the child is included but does not have to be subjected to the pressure of a larger group and the Aunt who just never has the right thing to say. 
  • Access your hospice experts - Even if you have not had services provided by a hospice agency, you can usually reach out to one of the bigger ones in your community and ask to talk to a bereavement counselor and possibly a child-teen specialist.  They have a great knowledge base and can connect families with resources in their community which focus on grief and loss challenges of kids and their families.  Comfort Zone Camp is a great example that runs multiple camps nationwide.

Kansas City Star Mom2Mom poll
What got me thinking about this post was two things.  First, my 6 year old twins have known for a while that daddy works at hospice and helps people who may die.  They ask about graveyards and what happens to people in the ground there.  They have not yet had a chance to attend a funeral, but it is something I have thought about how I would answer personally.  And this morning I was pleased to see this question in my local Kansas City Star paper.  The polled mothers from their Mom2Mom micro-site.  about their thoughts and I was pleased to see this subject as part of the local Kansas City Star newspaper poll to mothers.  As always the comments illuminate the discussion. Some excerpts:
  • I've tried to teach my kids (even when I can tell they don't want to hear it) that everything living will die someday. Death is part of life ("Circle of life, Simba"). That discussion is wasted if they're too young to comprehend.
  • I was 8 when I went to my first funeral and it was my father's and it was very uncofortable/terrible experience for me. Still to this day I remember the image of my fathers's body in the casket and the memory of seeing my father like that haunted me!
Are there any tips you might share?

*I use the term broadly here to even reach to young adult.


References:

ResearchBlogging.orgBlack, D. (1998). Coping with loss: Bereavement in childhood BMJ, 316 (7135), 931-933 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.316.7135.931 (Open Access PDF)

Holland, J. (2004). Should Children Attend Their Parent's Funerals? Pastoral Care in Education, 22 (1), 10-14 DOI: 10.1111/j.0264-3944.2004.00281.x (Open Access PDF referring to this study)

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