Thursday, June 9, 2011

Should Children Attend Funerals?

I came across a new site online yesterday, and one of the questions posed there pertained to this subject.  Should children be permitted to attend funerals?

Here is my take on it, one that I've found myself defending from time to time. 

Death is a part of life, an inevitable guarantee.  It isn't something that you can shield kids from forever, it is something they will have to encounter.  I believe it is better to be honest, to be up front, to give them to opportunity to decide rather than make that choice for them.  Death should not be feared, it should not be scary.  It should not be hidden. 

Sometimes, death is a welcome relief from suffering.

This is a topic close to my heart, one that I had to confront head on only a few months ago. 

In February, I lost my father to cancer.  He'd been sick a year and a half.  I returned home for the last month of his life to care  for him, in another state, away from my husband and children. 

From the beginning, my husband and I were on the same page with my father's illness.  He was diagnosed stage 4, terminal, from the beginning.  We knew where the path he was walking would lead him eventually. 

Dad was offered, and accepted, treatments intended to buy him time and to reduce his pain.  I'm not entirely convinced that the second goal there was ever really reached, but I never once questioned my father's choices to go through the treatments.  I was unyieldingly supportive.

When I had to get on an airplane in a hurry last year because he was in respiratory distress, I left not knowing if my children would ever see him again.  Frankly, I wasn't sure I would make it in time.  At that time, I sat my oldest down and told him the truth.  That Grandpa was very sick, that he was having trouble breathing, that he may not make it.  He may die.  My son, 8 at the time, understood. 

I didn't tell the other kids that he was terminal then, though I did tell my oldest. 

Dad pulled through, I helped him get out of the hospital and settled at home, then I came back. 

We made enough trips to see him in that year and a half that the kids could see him declining.  They saw him losing weight, they saw his hair falling out.  They saw him get weaker, they saw him unable to eat.  They knew, on some level, what was happening.  We'd told them he was sick, we'd used the word cancer.  They knew the medications to treat the cancer would make him sicker.  They knew he was in pain.

We made one last trip out there with the kids to see him.  Dad wanted everyone home for Christmas, and we got there.   He was still going through chemo then, and had one last treatment the day before we left.  He got word that day that it wasn't working.

We didn't tell the kids until we got back what was happening.  The cancer was worse, the medicine wasn't working anymore and Grandpa was stopping chemo.  I was back only two weeks before I was back on a plane out there to help him at home when he was placed on hospice. 

Before I left that last time, we sat the kids down and told them.  I was going back to help Grandpa.  His body was tired, he was in pain, and he was going to die.

Three weeks later, he was gone.  My husband had to deliver that news without me.  He had to get all the kids on a plane and fly to California alone.  And he did it.  When I stood at the bottom of the escalator that afternoon and they came around the corner, all my children suddenly seemed so much older.

We never intended to shield them from the services.  Whatever they wanted to be present for, they would be allowed to be.  I think everyone was shocked when the older three stood up at the rosary.  One by one, they shared their memories of Grandpa.  Said goodbye in their own way.  My heart swelled with pride and sorrow all at once.  As hard as it was to see them up there, it helped me to see that they were supposed to be there.  They were supposed to be a part of this.  We had done the right thing.

The next morning, they each placed a rose next to Dad's ashes at the funeral.  They sat next to their cousin, almost one year old, through the service.  My babies, who were 2, 5, 7 and 9 at the time, were all there.  Different ages, different levels of understanding, different relationships with their grandfather, but all there. 

My father and my children, August 2010
They knew immediately that Grandpa was in heaven.  He wasn't in pain anymore.  He didn't hurt anymore.  He would be with them forever in their hearts and minds.  Of these things, they were certain.  These certainties provided comfort to them then, still do now. 

Knowing that my father was ill and that he would eventually succumb to this disease gave us the chance to anticipate the stages of grief with the children.  We arranged for the older three to speak with a counselor when he was ill, when I was gone, and after his death. 

They've been a part of this family process from the beginning.  They owned it.  They have had time to deal with it in their own individual ways. 

Have we made the right decision?  I hope so.  I think so.  As parents, we can only ever do what we think is best at the time and hope that we made the right call.   That is all my father ever would have asked.

Miss you, Dad.


  1. When I was a child, I attended funerals for several great-aunts and uncles, my grandfather, and several family friends. All were older, and none (even my grandfather) were people I knew very well.

    I am truly grateful my parents encouraged (but never forced) me to attend several funerals as a young child, because when I was ten, my mom's best friend was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was my best friend, so I was very shaken by her death. Within the next several years, three more of my good friends lost parents and I lost my grandmother. In high school and college, I lost friends of my own to cancer, car accidents, and suicide, as well as my and my husbands' other grandparents.

    I feel that my presence at funerals has meant a lot to my family and friends, and I am not sure I would have ever been able to bring myself to go to a funeral if my parents hadn't taught me that death does not need to be feared or hidden. I am grateful that they allowed me the opportunity to say goodbye to these people who I loved.

    I'm very, very sorry for your loss. I'll continue praying for you and your family.

  2. Your eloquence, reasoning and purpose never cease to amaze me. You are absolutely right that death should not be feared, and attending services and knowing what is happening is part of what keeps the fear at bay. You are my model for motherhood and I am so proud to know you.


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