Are We Robbing Our children of Life?
my sister and I had a long conversation about funerals. An uncle had
died and she had called to tell me how the viewing, ceremony and
internment had gone. We reminisced on funerals from our childhood. Now
while this may seem very ghoulish, it was actually a conversation that
left us laughing.
Twenty plus years ago it was unthinkable not
to bring your child to a local family funeral. In general all funerals
were held at the same funeral home, the family was known by the home
staff and the viewings could be one sometimes two days depending on how
far other family members were traveling. While family and friends sat
and shared memories, stories and anecdotes about the deceased, every
small walking child was up and about running in and out of the group.
If the home was only holding one viewing on the particular evening,
then the additional viewing room became a playground for hide and seek,
tag and just running till one fell down. This was a time that the
children were able to see cousins they rarely if ever saw, aunts and
uncles, new babies and spouses. The casket room, if it could be snuck
into, was an excellent place to terrify each other with Dracula tales.
all knew why we were there. We understood an elderly relative had
passed. We were led in to view the deceased lying in their casket,
looking to children as if they were sleeping. The entire passing was
explained and accepted by all of us. We understood clearly that death
was in fact, a part of life. It was accepted, a few tears would be
shed, goodbyes were said, then for us children, life would go on.
the entire family and all close friends would gather at whosever home
was largest and sit and catch up on family news, gossip and life. The
young wives and older daughters were in charge of laying out the many
pounds of food which had been brought by family, friends, neighbors,
former co-workers etc. Sweet ice tea and hot coffee was drunk by the
gallon, someone had always supplied a 50 cup coffee maker, usually the
funeral home. During these times as well, all the children would be
outdoors in the warmer months, or indoors if cold, running and playing
and raising the roof with peals of childish laughter. We were never
told to be quiet. Never told we were being disrespectful. We were just
living, loving and laughing like children will.
funeral was a time to be quiet. We knew that. We sat with our parents
or grandparents and listened to the people tell funny or serious
stories about the deceased. We stood when it was over and solemnly
followed the others out. At the graveside, we listened as sacred words
were spoken to let the God/Goddess know the deceased was on their way,
for some to heaven, for my family, to the Summerland. We stood or sat
again respectfully, threw in our handful of dirt or a flower and
watched as the casket was lowered into the ground then covered with the
earth. At this point, the adults would again start communing, usually
walking about the cemetery and paying their respects to others who had
passed before. Sometimes laying flowers from the funeral on other
family members graves. The children were free to run and play hide and
seek amongst the gravestones. The cemetery was filled with the sounds
of childish screeches and laughter. We knew that there were people
buried beneath where we were playing. We understood where we were. We
also knew they were not truly there anymore, but had gone on to where
their deity took them. It was simply a part of life and a part we
accepted without a lot of questioning. It just was, it could not be
changed, so acceptance was the only option.
In these modern
times, when so many are choosing to forego funeral services due to
expense or personal choice, it is rare for one to see children of any
age at the viewing, service or internment. When plans are made to
attend, and I ask if another is bringing their children, I am so often
met with shock and anger. Parents today do not wish to expose their
children to death. They feel it is cruel or heartless.
comes that so many children today are traumatized by their first
experience with death. They feel abandoned and hurt. They are angry and
confused. Parents are putting their children in therapy to deal with
these emotions. The child sees death as an unexpected traumatic end,
not as the way things are. So many today fear death and fight against
it constantly. Why? Because they were never able to be taught and shown
that death, while not a happy event, is just the next step in life.
They have never had the chance to experience death in a loving and
family environment. They have not been given the choice of a child to
Are we robbing our children of a happy and full life
by not allowing them to see all aspects of it? I say yes. I say that in
not exposing your children to death as children, they are not able to
take the right of childlike acceptance of death, well explained as a
part of life. They are not able to see that after death, life goes on
for the rest. They are not given the chance to live the fullest life
they can. Why? Because they live with a misunderstanding and fear of
So what is the answer? Well there are many. Take your
child or children with you to funerals, at least to the viewing. Allow
them an opportunity to see and say goodbye. By all means if they lose a
playmate, let them go to the funeral or service to say goodbye. Bring
them to see relatives or friends who are terminally ill. Do not steal
their last chance to say goodbye or give that one last hug. If you can
arrange it, take your child to the funeral home early. They will be
less intimidated if there are not a lot of people milling about.
Another suggestion is to arrange a visit to the funeral home just to
see what it looks like. Take them through the viewing rooms and chapel,
allow them to see the coffin displays. This will keep the home from
being a strange and scary place. Let them come with you if you go to
the cemetery to place flowers. Let them see the cemetery as a place for
those who are still alive, by explaining that death was just the next
While all of these suggestions may sound cruel, they are
not. Children have the uncanny ability to accept reality unquestioned.
What they learn to accept in childhood carries through as a given into
adulthood. Yes they may question death as they grow older, but they
will not be traumatized by it. The underlying acceptance from childhood
will always overcome.
Explaining to your child about death may
seem very difficult to you. You must plan your words ahead of time and
be prepared for a myriad of childish questions. Never fool yourself
that your child does not already have a preconceived notion of death.
They have seen dead animals on the road, insects, birds and other
creatures. Ask them before you begin with your explanation, what they
think death means. Use what is available and well known to help you in
your explanation with small children. Use their favorite movies or
books where death is involved as a reference. Let them associate
themselves with that acceptance they have seen or read about.
death in simple terms, explain that the deceased is gone, no, they will
not be back. They will no longer eat, sleep, breathe or be able to do
all the things they did while alive.
Cremation can be
difficult to explain to children. One of the most important things to
remember is to avoid using the word burned. Children understand fire
and hot. An easy explanation is that the deceased did not wish to be
buried in the earth. That since their spirit had left their body, they
no longer needed the body. The body was placed in a very hot room and
it turned into ashes which were then put into the urn. If you can, show
them the urn or if they were given, the small ash holders. Explain to
them completely that the deceased’s spirit is gone. Children can become
very afraid of urns or the rooms they may be in if they feel the person
is in there. Most important is to make sure it is explained and
What I found worked best with my own three children
was to sit them down with me on the couch or in the floor. I told them
that I had something to talk about with them. I then went on with my
explanation of who had passed. What had caused them to die. Where they
were now. Then to explain we were going to say goodbye to their earthly
body. In response to the question “why” I simply explained that this
was just the next step in the way of life. The questions came like
bullets; “Will we see their spirit?”, “Can they still talk to us?”,
“Are they a ghost now?”, “Do they look like the mummy guy?”, “Are you
going to die?”, “When are you going to die?”, “Are we going to die?”
and so on. I answered each one with the truth. In the end we sat for a
bit and shared a funny memory of a time we had spent with the deceased.
All in all they were prepared and well behaved for the viewing, service
If you do not feel you can effectively explain
death to your child or children, then arrange a meeting with your
spiritual leader for all of you. Let your leader explain life and death
to you all.
We cannot control death, we may expect it, be prepared
for it, but it is still something of a shock much of the time. If a
child has experienced the death of a distant relative, family friend or
even a pet ahead of time, when it is a close relative, they will be
less traumatized than they would if they were not prepared.
child will grieve, however it will not be in the fashion of an adult.
They may reenact death in their playtime with monsters being the
culprit. They may be worried death is contagious like the chicken pox.
It is normal for a child to question death and make it a grisly horror
experience. Be prepared to answer questions sometimes days, weeks or
even months after the actual death. Children take their own time to
work through their thoughts and feelings. The time for concern is when
you see a dramatic change in the child’s behavior. A drop in grades,
avoidance of friends for a continued length of time, withdrawal from
family. If this occurs, sit down with your child and discuss what they
are feeling. Do not be surprised if they feel guilty. They may have
been angry with the deceased at one time and feel that their anger is
what caused the death. Talk to your child and relieve their fears and
anxieties. Explain to them that anger, wishes, and the like do not
cause death. Explain the cause of the deceased’s death if you think it
will help. The important thing is to help your child work through these
feelings on an open and healthy level.
Allowing a child to
experience death is not a punishment, it is a gift of life! Are we, the
adults so superior to withhold the natural process of life from our
children? No we are not. It is immoral to let one’s fear or revulsion
of death be carried on by another generation. The continuing of such
emotion is mentally and spiritually detrimental to the well being of
the child. In opening this up to your child, it may be that you find
yourself more accepting of death as well. A healing of both mind and