Adults often worry that children need to be protected from the reality of death. In most cases though, children are very resilient and have a healthy curiosity about death. Knowing the truth about the loss of a loved one can help them to understand what is real and also gives them an opportunity to grieve.
Many people wonder whether a child should attend a memorial service or funeral. If a child asks to go, let them, but do not force a child to attend. It’s also important to ascertain a child’s understanding of death. Most children under 6 do not have a full comprehension of what death is. It is important to talk through what the funeral is for, and how death is part of life. They may have questions as to why a doctor could not stop the death, or why their loved one has died. Listen to the child and do your best to answer all their questions.
When telling a child that someone has died, choose a person who is close to the child to ‘break the news.’ Try not to use terms that might confuse the child, such as saying that ‘he and she is asleep.’ Give the child time to absorb the news and assure them that they will be taken care of and loved if the death is that of a parent or guardian. Let them know that whatever they are feeling is okay whether that be anger, sadness or perhaps denial.
If the child is attending a viewing, let them know what to expect and offer to be in the room with them. Viewing the body can help a child to process the death. Let the child know how adults might behave at the funeral – and that some might be very upset. If the child is older, let them help make decisions about the service or suggest ways they can express feelings such as drawing a picture or writing a letter to their loved one.