Here's How To Help Your Child Say Goodbye To A Loved One At A Funeral

Experts share some tips to support children who want to participate in the memorial service for a late parent, relative or friend.
There are a variety of ways that children can be involved in a funeral, experts say.
altrendo images via Getty Images
There are a variety of ways that children can be involved in a funeral, experts say.

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People have an intrinsic need to say goodbye after the death of a loved one. Children who lose a parent are no different. While not every kid wants to give a eulogy, many do want to be involved in the funeral, said Mania Doucette, a Sacramento, California, therapist who specializes in grief and loss.

“It is very important to include them if they want to participate because, like adults, they need closure too,” Doucette said. “I often tell parents, ‘I understand you may feel the need to protect your child and their innocence, but through this experience, your child has already grown a few years and you should treat them that way,’” she said.

If you have a child who wants to be part of a parent’s funeral, here are some expert tips on helping them do so.

Explain what the funeral will be like and then see if your child wants to participate.

Funerals can provide comfort and connection for your child, but the ceremony can also be confusing and overwhelming. Sit down with them beforehand to explain what takes place at a funeral so they’re mentally prepared. Use this conversation to get a sense of whether your child wants to participate and if they’re emotionally ready to do so, said Jana DeCristofaro, a community response program coordinator at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

“It’s important to let them know that some people might cry and others won’t, that some people might feel angry, sad or numb, and that each of those feelings is OK,” she said. “This reduces any guilt they might feel for crying or not crying or needing to take a break. If they say they’d like to participate, ask if there is anything in particular they want to do or say.”

For older children and teens, it’s still valuable to walk them through the process but it’s also important to give them as much autonomy as possible.

“Give them choices about where they want to sit, who they want to sit next to, what they want to wear,” DeCristofaro said. “It’s also helpful to role-play ahead of time about how they want to respond to the common things people might say such as ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘They’re in a better place.’”

If your child asks to speak, let them.
stevecoleimages via Getty Images
If your child asks to speak, let them.

Don’t deprive the child of the chance to speak.

What you don’t want is for your child to later regret not attending the funeral or attending but not getting to participate. When children don’t get the opportunity to say goodbye, they may be left dealing with unexpressed thoughts and sentiments, said Lauren Schneider, the clinical director of children and adolescent programs at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles.

“Participation in the goodbye process can help them as they begin their mourning process and allows them to be part of the supportive community of relatives and friends gathered at that time,” she said.

Give some guidance on writing a eulogy.

It’s hard to know what to talk about in a eulogy even as an adult. If your child is struggling with what to say, give them some prompts, DeCristofaro said.

“Maybe you ask them, ‘What’s something you loved to do with daddy? Is there some way we could include that or refer to it in the ceremony?’” she said. “Or, ’What would you like to say to mom? Is there something you want to thank her for or a joke you know she would love to hear?’”

If they don’t want to speak, consider writing a letter.

Another option is to have your child write a letter capturing something they wish they could say to their late parent, Doucette said.

“Then give your child the choice of keeping the letter, having it read at the service ― even by someone else ― or having it interred with the parent,” she said. “This is healing and meaningful as it gives the child an opportunity to express their feelings.”

During Princess Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey, a message from young Prince Harry sat atop the flowers on her coffin. The envelope simply read, "Mummy."
PA Images via Getty Images
During Princess Diana's funeral at Westminster Abbey, a message from young Prince Harry sat atop the flowers on her coffin. The envelope simply read, "Mummy."

If they decide to speak, stand with them before the crowd.

If your child wants to participate, always offer to stand beside them at the podium to help put them at ease, said Jill S. Cohen, a New York City family grief counselor.

“Be right there in case they blank out and can’t get through the reading of the eulogy or start to cry,” she said. “You want someone to be there to help calm the situation and help it to go more smoothly.”

In general, it’s smart to designate one adult as your child’s go-to at the funeral.

“That person should sit with them, help them with their questions and help them process all of the goings-on, because others there will be so busy and grieving that they may not be able to tend to the children,” Cohen said.

Remind them that eulogies and letters aren’t the only ways to honor their parent.

Participation in a funeral should not be presented as a good or bad thing. Some kids may look forward to delivering a eulogy or sharing some funny anecdote about their parent. But other kids may want to have a private goodbye without an audience and some may be scared of public speaking, said Robin Goodman, the executive director of Caring Hands, a New York City nonprofit that serves grieving children, teens and caregivers.

“There are many reasons why a child may make a particular choice on this,” she said. “And this is all happening in the context of tough, new, complicated feelings with adults who are also dealing with tough, new, complicated feelings, too.”

Let your child know there are plenty of other ways to get involved, Goodman said. Here are just a few:

  • Make a work of art to put on display or in the casket
  • Put a special toy, a stuffed animal or another item on display or in the casket
  • Write a poem to share themselves or to have someone else recite at the funeral
  • Read a religious, spiritual or secular passage
  • Select a song to be played
  • Create a slideshow or video of memories
  • Select photos for a collage or poster
  • Create or help with the funeral program or another handout
  • Choose the food and drinks for after the funeral

“The important thing to remember is that children should not be forced or excluded,” Goodman said. “In general, rituals and services provide a structure and format for expressing and managing big feelings and experiences.”

And that helps children deal with their grief as much as it helps the adults who love them.

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