Ask An Expert / Trauma and Grief

Should children attend funerals?

There's no right or wrong answer, so consider context

Jamie M. Howard, PhD
Jamie Howard, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Trauma and Resilience Service

Child Mind Institute

I was wondering about children and funerals as my child, who just turned 8, has a great grandmother who is 98 years old and very frail. What is your advice on wakes and funerals?

Funerals can be an important part of the grieving process. They are a time to symbolically say goodbye and get on the path of accepting that a loved one is no longer here. When it comes to kids attending funerals, there’s no right or wrong thing to do. Instead, it’s very context-dependent. You need to ask yourself some questions: Is your child anxious, or easily distracted? Does she tend to dwell on things, or do they roll off her back? Is it going to be an open or closed casket? How long will the ceremony be? Does she even want to go? You should also consider how emotional people are going to be at the funeral. As a rule of thumb, we don’t want kids to be exposed to really scary, excessive displays of emotion. And when they are, we should explain that, even if the adults around them seem upset, they are still okay, safe, and will feel better again soon. Even more reassurance should be given if it is the child’s primary caregiver who is very upset.

If you do decide to take your child to the funeral, set aside time to prepare her for the experience. Describe what it will be like. For example, you could say that a lot of people will be wearing darker colors. There’s going to be a service, and there will be a big wooden box with grandma inside of it. There will be time for people to go say goodbye or say a prayer, but you don’t need to if you don’t want to. It isn’t a place to run around and play, but we could bring the babysitter in case you want to go outside. The goal here is to prepare your child by explaining what to expect in developmentally appropriate language.

I’d give the same advice for attending wakes. One other consideration is that wakes tend to be several hours long, and that taxes any kid’s attention span. If you want to bring your child to the wake, plan how long you are going to stay. If you want to be there longer than she has the capacity to stay, make arrangements ahead of time.

Finally, I just want to add that kids have all sorts of different reactions to death. Some get really sad, and that is okay. Some kids act oblivious, or don’t seem to care, and that’s pretty normal, too. Kids tend to pop in and out of grief in a way that adults don’t. They also have different capacities to understand the permanence of death. An eight-year-old will understand it better than a younger child, but still won’t have an adult understanding.