The Freitag Funeral Home

Kenneth W. Freitag
Owner/Manager
N.J. Lic. No. 3666

Christopher K. LaBree
Funeral Director
N.J. Lic. No. 4497

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Talking With Your Kids About Funerals

 

Helpful Guidance and SupportÖ For Parents   For Teachers   For All Caring Adults

My co-workerís seven-year-old son was devastated when his grandfather died. Kyle had been very close to his grandfather, who used to give him plenty of hugs and affectionate little pats on the arm. Kyle said he wanted to go to the visitation at the funeral home. When he got there, he walked right up to the casket without hesitation and patted his grandpa on the arm, just as Grandpa had done to him so many times before.

Getting Started

Parents often wonder whether they should include their child in the funeral and burial services when a friend or relative dies. They worry that their child may be too little to understand, or that seeing the body will be too traumatic.

Clinical psychologist Lyn Sontag insists, however, that "children should be included appropriately in all family grieving rituals. Death is part of life, and grief is part of the human emotional spectrum. Funeral rites are for the living to process the death and say good-bye. For kids to be shut out is wrong and potentially damaging."

Excluding your child from the funeral can make her feel that she is not a real part of the family, and that her feelings about the death somehow donít count. Including her, on the other hand, gives her the opportunity to grieve and begin to let go, within the comforting arms of family and friends. The key to making funeral services a positive, meaningful, and healing experience for a child is preparation.

The visitation

As much as possible, let your child know exactly what to expect from the funeral rituals your family will attend. Talk about what the service or ritual signifies: that it is an opportunity for those who knew and loved the deceased to support and comfort each other in their sadness. It is a chance to honor that personís life- to remember and tell stories, to laugh and to cry.

If you will be attending a wake with an open casket, describe to your child what the funeral home looks like, particularly the room where the casket will be. Tell him that many people send flower arrangements to express their sympathy to the family and to celebrate the beauty of the personís life. Explain the body of the person will be there, in a special box called a casket, but that you will only be able to see the upper portion of the body.

Be sure to prepare your child for the appearance of the body: The body will be specially "made up" and the person may seem younger than before. The body will be very still, not breathing, because it isnít working anymore. And it will be firm and cold to the touch. Donít insist that your child touch the body or "kiss Grandma," as this can be traumatic for a child, who is accustomed to a living, breathing, warm and cuddly Grandma.

Talk about what to wear and how to behave. If the deceased person is immediate family, tell your child that people may say, "Iím sorry," and that a suitable response is "Thank you."

Tell your child this is a good time for us to say a final good-bye in our hearts to our loved one: to tell Aunt Sissy how much we love her and will miss her, or how sorry we are for something we regret, or to say a prayer for her.

Be sure to arrange for an adult to look after your child- someone not immediately involved in the funeral, who understands kidsí needs and their thresholds of boredom and fatigue. This adult can take your child out for a break or a walk if he becomes overwhelmed, tired, or distracted.

If your child doesnít want to attend the funeral services, see if you can determine why. You may be able to uncover some unrealistic fears or fantasies which you can dispel through simple explanation. If your child still adamantly refuses to go, however, give him the option of staying home with a friend or a trusted sitter.

Ages 4-7

Including children in funeral rites helps them to accept the reality of death and begin the process of letting go. This is especially important for younger children, who may expect the deceased person to come walking through the door at any time, or may continue to search or wait for that person.

The church and burial services

If there is to be a church ceremony, go over the readings ahead of time and explain the significance of the various parts of the service. This will help your child pay attention and get more out of the service.

Talk with your child about the need to bury the body, and discuss the elements of the burial service of your faith tradition- for example, the procession, the prayers or blessings, throwing on a handful of dirt, the lowering of the casket.

If the body is to be cremated, and the child was very close to the deceased, try to arrange to spend some time with the body before cremation. Talk about the cremation process and how this doesnít hurt the body, which can no longer feel any pain.

Encourage participation

As much as possible, let your child be a part of the funeral services. She might want to create a drawing or poem to place on a table set aside for photos and memorabilia. She could suggest one of the songs, or do one of the readings or prayers at the liturgy. She could place a flower on the casket during the burial service.

Preparing your child to attend aÖ

bulletFirst, let your child know exactly what to expect.
bulletUnderstand any reluctance, and talk about it.
bulletNever force your child to attend if she refuses.
bulletExplain the significance of the various rituals.
bulletReinforce your beliefs about life after death.
bulletAllow her to participate in the services.
bulletLet her visit the cemetery during the next year.

Some children want to place good-bye notes or photos into the casket before it is closed, a healthy way of keeping a sense of love and connection. One girl whose father had died of cancer tucked her teddy bear in with him. Another child, whose father had been very active in his sports programs, placed a prized trophy into the casket.

Sometime during the year after the death, suggest a visit to the cemetery. Plan in advance to take flowers or a note or some other meaningful object to place on the grave. Ask your child how she felt about visiting the grave and whether she would like to do so again in the future.

Dealing with feelings and sharing beliefs

Kyle had dozens of questions arising from the death and the funeral, ranging from "What happens to our bodies after we die?" to "Where is heaven?" to "Why do bad things happen?" to "Will I ever see Grandpa again?" His parents have answered the questions they can, asked for help with the answers they donít know, and, in some cases, have said simply, "We donít know."

Funeral rituals are wonderful springboards to discussions about your beliefs related to life, death, and the afterlife. Since there are abstract concepts involved, be sure to ask your child questions to determine his level of understanding: "What is your idea of heaven?" "What do you think happened when Uncle Eddie died?"

A word to the wise

At the same time as you are searching for the right words and the best way to introduce your child to funeral services, be attuned to what other people may be telling your child.

Beware of ideas such as, "God loved your mother so much, he took her to heaven." This may seem to imply that Momís family on earth didnít love her enough. Even seemingly harmless expressions, such as, "Sheís better off now," can confuse a child who canít imagine that thereís anything "better" about being dead.

Ages 8-12

Be especially attentive to your older childís security needs. He is not a "little kid" and so feels funny about crying or clinging or sitting on your lap. But he is not yet a "sophisticated," self-sufficient teen. Find age-appropriate ways of giving him love, support, and reassurance.

Bringing It Home

In reaching out to pat his grandpaís arm, Kyle knew instinctively: there is something that can reach across the chasm between life and death, something that ties us forever to those who have died- and that thing is love. This is what we celebrate and remember in our funeral services.

Help!

Books: The Grieving Child: A Parentís Guide by Helen Fitzgerald, New York, Fireside, 1992. How Do We Tell the Children? A Step-by-Step Guide for Helping Children Two to Teen Cope When Someone Dies by Dan Schaefer and Christine Lyons, New York, Newmarket Press, 1993. Tell Me, Papa: A Family Book for Childrenís Questions About Death and Funerals by Joy Johnson and Marvin Johnson, Centering Corporation, Omaha, 1978. For younger kids: Sad Isnít Bad: A Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing With Loss by Michaelene Mundy, St. Meinrad, Indiana, Abbey Press, 1998.

 

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