Unfortunately, many children are affected by death, this may be the death of a grandparent, other relative or a beloved pet, or less frequently a parent or a friend. There is a wide spectrum of how children cope with grief depending on who has died and their relationship to the child, as well as the age and level of understanding of the affected child. As such, there is no one single way to support grieving children, instead a range of ideas and approaches that should be used according to the circumstances.
Talking to Children About Death
It is important to be honest with children no matter their age. Children, even young babies, are incredibly good at picking up on tension and knowing that something is wrong even if they are not yet old enough to understand. As a rule, children under the age of six years cannot understand the permanence of death and may ask questions such as ‘when is nanny coming back?’. This lack of understanding may mean that when told a person has died, they may not react in the way that we would expect. For example, they may just ask for a drink or to carry on playing, with their feelings being expressed later as they do process what they have been told.
As children get older their understanding increases, however, their reactions may still differ from those of adults. Some children are more sensitive than others, and some will have lots of questions or concerns, while others will shut down and not want to discuss the subject at all. It is important to ensure that children know that they can talk and ask questions, but not to force a conversation. It may also be a good idea to encourage the child to share memories of the person that has died, framing the conversation in a positive manner as opposed to focusing on their death.
To help with the conversation there are books and other media that can help to explain death in a child friendly manner. One such book that Celebrant Steve often recommends is Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney that is widely available from retailers. There are also many YouTube videos available with various people reading the story, such as this example.
Should Children Attend A Funeral?
The question of whether a child should attend a funeral is often debated within families. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer, and it depends on the child and their relationship to the person that has died. Being prudent, it may be unwise for children under the age of around three years to attend, as they are very unlikely to gain benefit from attending and be more likely to cause distress to other guests if they are unable to sit still or be quiet. However, in the case of it being a close relative, such as a parent, it may be appropriate for babies and younger children to attend.
For older children and teenagers, it is often wise to explain what a funeral is, and what will happen, and then give them the option. If you opt to give the child the choice, it is important to respect their decision if it differs from what you would like. Pressuring a child one way or the other may cause longer-term problems during the grieving process and coming to terms with their loss.
If it is a close relative that has died a funeral officiant, such as Celebrant Steve, can help to prepare children for the funeral by:
- Talking to them about what will happen
- Listening to their ideas for the ceremony/music/verse
- Encouraging them to share stories or favourite memories that can be incorporated into the service
- Helping the child to find a way of being involved in an age-appropriate manner
- Offering reassurance, empathy, and support
You can find out more about Celebrant Steve and the services he offers here.
Keepsakes For Children
Depending on the age of the child, and the relationship to the person that has died, it may be appropriate to consider investing in a keepsake. There are many keepsake options available including:
- An item belonging to the person that has died
- A memorial teddy bear
- Custom memorial jewellery
The person that has died may have left the child an item in their will that would in turn be a keepsake, if there is no will, it may be appropriate to allow a child to choose an item to keep that belonged to the person.
There are many companies that supply memorial items with teddy bears being a popular choice. Allowing the children to choose one or more items of the person that has died clothing, these items are then sewn into memorial teddy bears. There are also many options for custom jewellery to be made from ashes or hair, you can read more about memorial jewellery in this recent blog post.
Professional Support for Bereaved Children
Depending on the age of the child and their relationship with the person that has died it may be necessary to seek professional bereavement support. Some children find it difficult to talk about their feelings and express their emotions in negative or detrimental behaviours; in this case professional support may be necessary. If you are concerned about your child you could speak with your GP who should be able to refer you to local support services, you could also liaise with their school who may be able to offer specialised support or refer to a local service, alternatively there are private counsellors or charities such as Child Bereavement UK.
Funeral services where a child has lost a parent are some of the most difficult, and the way a service is conducted can make a huge difference to how a child copes. Enlisting a professional funeral celebrant to help guide the process can be extremely beneficial to everyone involved. You can contact Steve directly or via your funeral director if you would like him to officiate at a funeral service. It is often noted how caring and compassionate Steve is, and that his approach to the planning and delivery of services makes a hard day that little bit easier. He is always looking for ways to make the service as personal as possible and will include children and particularly their ideas or memories as appropriate. He also mindful of the need for supporting grieving children to process the death, and willing to contribute to this process as appropriate or offer advice for services that may be able to help further.