Attending funerals can help children process grief, says CQU expert

20 September 2022

Royal protocol and expectations aside' a CQUniversity expert has said that the decision to include a young Prince George and Princess Charlotte in the Queen Elizabeth II's funeral was the right one to make.

According to child psychology expert Dr Cassy Dittman' including children in funeral rituals can help them to better understand death and help them to deal with their own feelings of grief and sadness.

Along with this' Dr Dittman said that the presence of children can also be beneficial for others dealing with their feelings of grief' reminding them that life continues and bringing positivity and optimism about the future.

"Many of us will feel a sense of shock or disbelief when a loved one dies' and attending their funeral helps us grasp the reality that the death has actually happened.

"Children do not have a true understanding of the permanency and finality of death until they are around five to seven years old' but before that age' they do have an understanding of death in some form. Allowing children to attend a funeral will help them to better understand the reality that their family member has died."

Dr Dittman said that making a decision about funeral attendance can be a difficult one for parents and guardians to make' especially at a time that is already full of sadness' stress and emotion.

"When a loved one dies' the decision about whether children should attend the funeral can be difficult to make.

"Parents might be concerned that their child will be overwhelmed' confused' or frightened by the experience' and they may also be concerned about being visibly upset in front of their child.

"Parents might also worry that their child will not be able to sit quietly for the duration of the funeral and may disturb others. Other family members may also have strong opinions' believing that a funeral is no place for a child.

"While these are all valid concerns' it is important for parents to remember that there are many benefits for children.

"Just like for adults' funerals are important rituals that allow them to grieve' reflect on their memories of their loved one' and get and give support and care to others. Funerals can also help children understand healthy grieving."

While there are several important benefits' Dr Dittman does recommend that parents consult with their children about the decision and what to expect' especially if it is the first time a child has attended a funeral.

"It is very important to have a conversation with a child as to whether they would like to attend and provide them with information about what will happen and what to expect.

"Explaining what happens at a funeral is important in helping children decide if they would like to attend and for preparing them for what they may experience.

"In having these conversations' adults should speak to children in language that is appropriate for their development about what will happen' like prayers' songs and speeches' what the room will look like and where the deceased person will be. It is also important to prepare children that some people in the room will cry and be upset because they miss the person' while others will smile or even laugh as people give speeches and reminisce about their loved one.

"If you have decided to include children in a funeral it can also be a good idea to allow them to play a part for example placing a bouquet of flowers or writing a poem.

"Let the child know that a funeral is a safe place to show their feelings. If they want to cry or feel sad' then that's completely okay. Similarly' if they don't cry or don't feel very upset' then that's okay too. Children' just like adults' can react differently to funerals' with some children very affected' while others might not seem to care."

Dr Dittman also recommends that where very young children are concerned it is also a good idea to be as prepared as possible by arranging for a support person to help children if they become overwhelmed.

"Providing them with a book or another quiet activity can be a good plan to have in place'" she explained

As well as preparing and consulting with children prior to the event' Dr Dittman also said that it was important to check-in on children afterwards as this allows adults a chance to answer questions.

"Some children might have questions or concerns and if they do it is important to answer these questions openly and honestly while also being careful not to use vague terms like' 'passed away' or 'gone to sleep.'

"It is generally best to stick to the facts as best as you can and reassure children that their feelings are normal. It can also help for parents to carefully share their own feelings of sadness and help children remember and reflect on good memories about the loved one."