Should parents bring children to a funeral service or to the graveside interment itself?
Over the years, many parents have asked me this question. Most of the time they express their sincere and legitimate concern that by doing so, especially bringing them to the graveside service, they would traumatize them, resulting in long-term adverse effects to their children’s mental health.
Making this decision is certainly not an easy one, especially for elementary school age children. It requires the utmost attention to the child’s psychological state of mind and his or her capability to handle this public occasion of witnessing someone they may know being lowered into the ground. Parents also must consider whether their children can sit through a funeral service. Obviously, these kinds of situations require a parent to make a judgment. Attending a funeral service or a graveside interment raises fundamental issues about human mortality and offers parent an opportunity to explain to kids how their respective faith traditions treat death and mourning.
Most of our religions have very specific rituals that guide clergy and families during a death. My experience has been that ritual is a helpful tool on a spiritual level as well as on a mental health level to assist adults and children in coping with the emotional upheaval associated with death. Rituals enable mourners to channel their emotions into the rituals, which enables them to maintain composure and find comfort.
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We want to protect our children from emotional pain and shield them from confronting tough questions about their own mortality. Whether we are talking about a funeral with a Catholic Mass, filled with beautiful rituals, or the Jewish traditions which requires seven days of mourning and tearing our garments as an expression of grief, the idea here is that rituals empower or at least offset the feeling of helplessness people often feel when a loved one dies.
By the time I was 10, I had lost two aunts and a grandfather. I don’t remember being taken to any of their funerals. My first memory of facing death was when my parents took me to visit President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. I was in elementary school and remember seeing the eternal flame at his grave. It was definitely a scary moment for me because I realized for the first time in my life that I, too, would one day die. Yes, it was upsetting to me, and I still carry that memory today. I do not believe, however, that the visit adversely affected my mental health. Maybe the experience prepared me for the time three years later when, at 13, I lost a good friend in a car accident. I attended the funeral and was able to cope with the environment of mourning.
Recently we had an opportunity to discuss death and the afterlife with our teens. It was not an easy subject to evoke conversation. Yet when we began to discuss their recollections after their pets died, the entire conversation changed. People got it, and the dialogue intensified.
It is hard to discuss loss and understand the ideas of rituals at those ages. Yet when teens and younger ones can extend their own experience with their deceased pets, it opens up a spiritual and emotional pathway into the lessons that death teaches us about the cycle of life.
Sometimes in the spirit of trying to protect our children from emotional pain, do we really serve them well when we leave older children home versus attending a funeral? Do we truly help them by avoiding the hard questions of what happens after we die? Each religion has different responses. Maybe if we learn more about what our respective religions teach we can be better equipped to teach our children. It is not about answering all their questions. It is about helping them feel like they do not have to be afraid to ask hard questions of their parents.
Let’s not forget that children are resilient and they, too, have coping mechanisms just like adults. We must continue to explain how our religious teachings interpret life and death and how rituals of mourning comfort us and strengthen our mental and spiritual health. How long can we shield our young people from the realities of life? What about our faith not only in God but in ourselves to teach and to guide our children in these difficult paths of life?
When we recite the 23rd Psalm we say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no harm for You are with me.”
Should we embrace the fear about death? Isn’t that what it comes down to when we avoid the subject?
It is understandable to have these feelings but we have an opportunity to really help our children in the long term grasp the wisdom of what life is all about.