Woman at a cemetary
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Woman at a cemetery

Helping Children Cope With a Death in the Family

Children should go to funerals

When someone close to the family dies, should children attend the funeral? Research shows that adults' well-intentioned attempts to shield children from sad experiences can be more harmful than encouraging their participation in the rituals surrounding death. Even very young children know that when a family member or friend dies, something traumatic has happened. It is very comforting to children when they are included in those events that the family has chosen to commemorate death. It teaches them a valuable lesson: sharing sadness with others is how we find solace.

The rituals of death enable the mourners to say goodbye to someone they love. Children need to do this, too. Saying goodbye makes death less frightening and grief more acceptable. Doing this with other family members lets children feel the special closeness families often experience in times of loss.

Keep in mind that children's greatest fear is not the loss of another person, but that they will be abandoned. Being excluded from the family group when something of such importance is happening is much more frightening to a child than witnessing grieving adults.

In addition to feeling rejected and lonely, children who are left out have many questions about death that they have no chance to ask. Therefore, they may create their own fantasies about what is going on, which may be far more disturbing to them than the real thing. However, children should be invited, not forced, to participate in some, but not all, of the goings-on. For very young children, it is recommended that they be accompanied by an adult they know who is not deeply grieving. This should be someone who can attend to the child's needs and accept the child's actions whatever they may be. Sometimes young children want to attend part of the funeral service, but cannot handle all of it. An adult must be there who can take the child where her behavior won't disturb others.

Give children a factual description of the event beforehand so they know what to expect. For example, you may say, "Grownups will give long talks and you'll have to keep quiet. Many people will be crying. You may see Grandpa lying in a box but he won't be able to talk to you. Later, the box will be closed and put into the ground."

While funerals and burials can be anxiety producing for adults as well as children, they are important events that build closeness, love and trust among family members. It's this sense of belonging that is healing to all. Excluding children denies them the chance to be part of the family and to heal their own fears.

Children will deal with death in curious ways
When dealing with a death in the family, school-age children's behavior can be surprising. Some will cry and express sadness in ways that we, as adults, can readily understand. But other common reactions include:

  • denial: "If I pretend it didn't happen, I won't hurt so much."
  • bodily distress: "I can't breathe...I can't sleep...I can't eat..."
  • anger at the deceased: "Didn't he love me enough to stay alive?"
  • guilt: "She got sick because I was naughty."
  • anger toward others: "It's the doctor's fault."
  • replacement: "Uncle Ben, do you really love me?"
  • taking on mannerisms of the deceased: "Do I look like Dad?"
  • idealization: "Don't say that about my grandpa! He was perfect!"
  • anxiety: "I feel like grandma before she died. I hurt right here."
  • panic: "Who will take care of me? What if Mommy dies?"

A child may appear unconcerned, even callous, and go about playing as usual after a death. Don't be alarmed. These are different ways children cope with an overwhelming loss. What's important is to allow children to have their feelings, to express them as they choose and at the pace they set.

Sometimes when children don't appear sad it means that the loss seems so overwhelming that they have to protect themselves from facing it, to grieve in bits and pieces over a long period. They may ask few questions at first, but these will come with time.

Another reason children who are grieving may not appear to be doing so is that children have a short sadness span. It is common for children to act sad for a while and then get on with their regular interests and activities. When they can handle it, they'll come back to dealing with their feelings of sadness again.

Extra hugs, reassurance that their changing moods and feelings are normal and acceptable, and providing direct answers to their questions are among the most helpful things adults can offer grieving children.

Older children from nine years and up sometimes find it easier to talk to someone outside the immediate family. A trusted adult friend or member of the extended family can help them sort out the complex emotions that accompany a major loss.

Support groups are also helpful, especially for teenagers. They provide a legitimate place to express feelings with other young people who understand what they are going through.

Moving in and out of the various feelings that accompany death is typical for children. Adults are cautioned to watch children for prolonged denial. If refusing to accept the fact that the person has died is a consistent reaction, then consider seeking professional help for the child.

Source: Sue West, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, NYS College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 43


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated February 18, 2016