When Can My Child Go to a Funeral?

Understanding your child will inform when they should attend a funeral.

Mother and baby at funeral
Mother and baby at funeral. Getty Images/Rich Legg/E+

A parent asks, "In the last year, we've experienced the deaths of a couple of friends and have talked just briefly about death and funerals. Now, however, one of my wife's cousins has died. We were very close to her and her children, so I'm wondering if my toddler should go to the funeral. She's two years old now. Is that too young?

Whether children should go to funerals is a common but important concern of parents, and it depends less on your child's specific age and more on your child's maturity and your dialog with your child.

Don't Just Rely on Your Toddler's Age to Decide

It sounds like you're already considering a point that is more important than age: the level of closeness your toddler shares with the person who has died.

You did not take your daughter to previous funerals this year because they were for friends that she may not have known or been close to. Now, though, there's been a death involving someone she knew, loved and will certainly wonder about in the future. This is certainly a suitable reason to consider taking your toddler to the funeral.

Consider Your Toddler's Behavior

Another important consideration is your toddler's behavior. If your child is able to sit still and quiet for longer periods of time, then she's less likely to cause a disturbance at a funeral. If she is very active or difficult to distract when she's bored, however, you'll probably want to book a sitter. First and foremost, you want to be respectful to the family of the deceased.

Your own family is likely to be more tolerant of your toddler's naturally rambunctious behavior than a coworker's family. It may be the case, though, that other children will be in attendance, or that it's expected (culturally or otherwise) that children participate in ceremonies surrounding life and death.

A few phone calls to those you know are attending can go a long way in your decision-making process.

Consider the Behavior of Others

Your toddler probably isn't the only one whose behavior you should consider. While funerals can be quiet, solemn affairs, they are, understandably, places where people are filled with overwhelming emotion.

People will be seen crying, including those who may openly weep, yell, collapse and say things that could be frightening to your toddler. If you know that your toddler reacts with strong empathy to those around her, it might be best to skip the funeral. If you don't know how your toddler might react, it's best to start talking about it right away.

If You Decide to Take Your Toddler to the Funeral

Start talking about the death as soon as possible. If you are feeling very emotional and worry about breaking down, give yourself some time and space to grieve before you tackle a discussion. Don't try to wait until all or most your sadness has passed, however, since it's natural for these things to take time, and you want your toddler to know it's OK to be sad about death and loss.

Try to meet your child at her current level of understanding. Relate to other situations if possible, but if not, start fresh. Explain what death means in the simplest terms. (For example, you can say, "Mommy's cousin has died. That means that she is not alive anymore, and we can't see her again.")

Avoid using vague terms (such as passed on, expired, or departed) and be as concrete as possible. Also avoid telling toddlers that the person has gone to sleep or won't ever wake up again. Sleep is such a fundamental part of your child's life that she might begin to make a connection and be frightened that she might also go to sleep and never wake up, or that you might do the same.

After you've discussed what you can of death, it's OK to leave that topic alone and visit it in the future as your toddler has questions. Don't keep talking about it repeatedly if it seems it's not sinking in, and don't try to evoke a visible response. Toddlers aren't likely to process such a complex situation immediately. Just be aware of opportunities to offer clarity later and keep things simple for now.

Talking About the Ceremony

Other conversations you'll want to have are about the ceremony itself. Just like you'd discuss a doctor's appointment or visit to the fair, you'll want to let her know what's going to happen when she is at the funeral. Relate to her first about things she understands, like what she'll wear, where the service will be, and who will be there that she knows. Be sure to talk about how she'll need to behave and how the people who are there may be crying or upset.

Even though you may have explained how you'd like for her behave, this is a toddler we're talking about; it's hard to predict what will happen even under the best circumstances. Be ready to remove your toddler from the service if necessary for the benefit of others involved.

If it's highly important for your personal mental health to participate fully in the funeral, consider having a friend or babysitter attend so that they can take your toddler outside or for a walk if she gets bored and rowdy. Bear in mind the time of the service and have snacks, drinks and comfort objects on hand. Of course, know where bathrooms are in case of diapering and potty needs.

If You Decide Not to Take Your Toddler to the Funeral

First, don't worry. The idea of closure isn't really something your toddler understands. Closure will come to her much later, sometimes years later. It comes through the process of you discussing and explaining things to her as she matures, especially if the person who died was very close to her (like a parent, aunt or sitter).

Closure also comes from experiencing other deaths and losses, large and small. The death of a pet or a plant, or the loss of a close friend who moves away, will all contribute to her understanding of what it means to grieve.

Open a dialogue with your toddler as soon as you are emotionally capable of doing so. Don't worry about some tears, though. It really is important for your child to see that sadness is part of the process.

Make sure you acknowledge any feelings your toddler might be having. She might not react right away or in ways that you expect. The most common feeling she will express will be a feeling of simply missing the person who has died and wishing that she could still spend time with them. Keep reinforcing the fact that the person is dead, but do not discourage her from talking about this person in sad, happy or even angry terms.

If you desire, you can always have a small memorial service with your child alone or even coordinate with others who knew the deceased and have children that didn't attend the funeral. You could take flowers to the grave at a later date along with a card or picture your child has drawn, or create a new family tradition that centers around honoring and remembering the person who died.

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