Family Health

Dear David Coleman: Should I bring my son to his grandad's funeral?

Q I have a beautiful eight-year-old boy. He is very sensitive, you’d almost say soft, but I love that about him. He is our only child. My husband’s father passed away in England and the funeral will be in a couple of weeks. I really don’t know whether to bring my son to the funeral. He still talks about my father, who died when he was just four, and occasionally gets upset (as he didn’t have any grandparents left in Ireland). I just feel the funeral might be too overwhelming and upsetting for him. What do you think – should we bring him or not?

A With the timing of my column, it may be that the funeral has already happened, and you may have had to make your decision in the meantime. If so, I am sorry that my advice comes belatedly. I hope you don’t mind me responding anyway, as the question of bringing children to funerals may be very relevant for other families.

In truth, there is no right, wrong or absolutes about whether it is more helpful to have children at funerals or not. In many ways, it depends on the child, their temperament and their relationship with the person who has died. In my view, the closer the child is to the person who died, the more important it is that they are included in any ceremonies to celebrate the life of the person and acknowledge the loss.

In your situation, the fact that the funeral is (was) in the UK is probably another factor. If you don’t want him at the funeral, you either have to leave him at home while you travel or bring him to England, but then rely on perhaps extended family (whom he may not know well) to care for him during any church services and the burial.

Unfortunately, death is an ever-present part of life. This means that children are highly likely to experience it in some way during their childhood or adolescence. While it may be very upsetting for them, or even anxiety-provoking, it is not unnatural.

Indeed, whatever their emotional response to a death, the important thing is that there are caring and understanding adults available to them to help them process those feelings.

Sometimes, when we too are deeply affected by the death (for example, when it is our own parent), it can be hard to be emotionally available to our children in their grief.

However, this too is both natural and understandable, and typically, other ‘good-enough’ adults will step in to support our children until we are back on an even-enough keel to be able to do it ourselves.

What funerals, and perhaps the preceding wake, can offer children is the formal acknowledgement that the person is dead. This can help with a child’s acceptance of the death, as it offers a form of transition from the time the person was alive and present in their lives, to the place where they are absent. It also allows children to realise that their feelings may be mirrored by many other people, as funerals do allow for a very public sharing of grief, as well as a celebration of the person’s life.

Even witnessing the burial or cremation of the body can be helpful for children to understand something of the process of death in our culture.

All of these things can occur for children even if they don’t attend the funeral. It may just be a slower or different process for them. Whatever you decide (or decided) about attendance at the funeral, it will really help your son if you can keep good communication open about his grandfather’s death, both sharing your (and his dad’s) experience of it, as well as listening to your son’s thoughts and feelings.

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