Children and funerals

Saw this article in the New York Times yesterday:  Letting Children Share in Grief.  The part of the article that really resonated with me is below.

TRYING to protect children from the pain of the death of a relative can actually make matters worse, some experts say. Children pick up “on the message the adults give verbally and nonverbally to ‘not go there,’ ” said Patti Anewalt, a grief counselor at Hospice and Community Care. “As a result, kids are extremely anxious.”

But America has since become a “mourning avoidant” culture, he added, in part because many 40- and 50-year-olds still have living parents. And that longevity, he wrote in an e-mail, has “resulted in a tendency to overprotect children from the realities of grief and loss.” Indeed, death is such a foreign concept to some families, he said, that he has been told, “We just don’t do death.” (Source:  Catherine Saint Louis, NYT)

In her nearly three years Mabel has already attended several funerals and memorials.  My high school friend’s father’s memorial service; her great-grandfather’s wake, funeral mass, and burial; my aunt’s memorial service; the wake for an aunt’s father; her great-grandmother’s memorial service.

Maybe it’s the Irish Catholic way of doing things, but kids are always there.  Even in the midst of tragedy, it seems kids can provide a wonderful emotional release- laughter at their antics, reminders that life will go on.

When my grandmother passed away, my cousin, who had given birth only 2 weeks prior was there, with her infant, though nobody would have faulted her if she had stayed home.  When my aunt passed away unexpectedly, we were all grief-stricken and beside ourselves; however, the little cousins still brought smiles to our faces as they toddled around.

I remember the first wake I attended as a kid old enough to realize what was happening.  My uncle’s father passed away.  We dressed up and went.  I remember seeing him laying in the casket- the kind and generous old German man who always had the kids into his small cottage for German chocolates every time we visited- it was upsetting.  It was also upsetting to see my uncle, a strong man, cry and weep.

Was it wrong for me to be there?  I don’t think so.  Not at all.  I watched my parents and learned the cultural rituals we participate in to mourn the dead, celebrate their lives, and most importantly comfort the ones they’ve left behind.  Some cultures you wail and throw yourself on the casket.  Others you are somber and quiet.  Mine? Everyone stands around and tells funny stories, uses humor to diffuse the sadness, then has a big party.  Everybody fights the urge to cry, tries to keep their sadness under wraps, and often laughs through the tears.

Mabel is way too young to realize what is happening when we go to wakes and funerals.  We don’t bring her up to the casket, we let her play with her cousins in the back of the room and entertain the mourners in need of the happy distraction.  Her hugs and kisses for her mourning loved ones aren’t any less comforting because she doesn’t know why they are upset.

She has little concept of death.  When she saw a dead snake squished on the road near our house, she suggested we take it to the vet.  I told her the vet couldn’t help.  The vet only helped living animals and the snake was dead.  When she asked what that meant, I just explained that it’s body was too broken, it didn’t work anymore, it couldn’t be fixed.  She was satisfied, although I’m sure we will revisit it.

I know there are some who disagree- who think it’s my job to protect her (and Nemo now that he is here) from the grief and sadness.  However, to them I say, when will it be time?  Should it be something she’s always known about and learned about as she grew, or something traumatic and sudden when the person who has passed away is too close to be ignored and hidden, when she will be unaware of the rituals to mourn and comfort?  You know, as I write it- it’s always traumatic in some way, it may always be a shock- but at least she can be as prepared as possible for the eventuality.

Hopefully it will be a very long time before she loses someone she loves dearly.  However, I know for certain it will happen.  I hope by then she will have navigated less upsetting losses and have the skills and emotional depth to ease the pain when it hits close to home.

How do you handle death with your children?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Children and funerals

  1. We’ve discussed death with Bug; so far, we’ve said things like “Great-Grandma’s body stopped working and her neshama (soul or spirit) went to God.” He’s repeated it about dead things we see, like beetles or birds: “Its body stopped working and it is dead.” My extended family is pretty blunt and direct about such things so we were never shielded from the facts of death and mourning. I’m not sure grief is real to him yet though. I’m sure when they get older the questions will be harder.

  2. Stefanie Summerer

    The kid learned about death on his own after reading a new book about Sleeping Beauty. He then realized that Michael Jackson was dead since we told him that he could not see MJ in concert. To answer his questions, we have told him that eventually everyone will die because our bodies can’t last forever. Just like food that goes bad when left on the counter, eventually our bodies will stop working. Hopefully, it won’t be for a very long time. But when it happens, we will go to Heaven to be with God. He seems satisfied with that answer for now. He actually went to his first funeral a couple weeks ago when Eric’s grandmother died. He was 4.5. The baby has been to three funerals, but he is too young to understand.

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