Adults often fear that children are too fragile to face the reality of death. Actually, most children are emotionally strong and want to know about death. The truth helps them understand what is real and what is imaginary. Just like adults, children need to be given the opportunity to feel pain, mourn and grow.
If there is a viewing, prepare the child for the experience: what the room looks like where the body will be viewed, what the casket looks like, how the deceased is lying, and that the skin looks different than usual and is cold because the body isn't working anymore. Explain how adults at the funeral may behave - crying or even laughing while reminiscing.
If the child wishes, help them approach the casket. Viewing the body helps the child understand what death is and that their loved one is, in fact, dead. Few children later regret viewing the body; many regret not doing so. Most focus on the familiar features of their loved one. Plan the child's first viewing to be in private with a supportive adult. The child's age and maturity are critical factors to consider.
School-age children can help make some of the decisions about the service for a family member. For example, they may want to choose a song or the burial clothes.
Suggest specific ways for children to express their feelings. They might place something in the coffin, write a letter or draw a picture. Young children may want to touch the deceased or look under the closed part of the casket to know that the legs are actually there. Older children may value time alone to talk to the deceased. Be responsive and supportive of what the child wants to do. Do not force them to engage in any uncomfortable activity.
The support of a trusted adult is important. A parent who has lost a spouse, child or parent may not be able to provide this support. The parent will need to participate in the event and mourn. The child may need another caring adult who can comfort, answer questions and leave the room with the child if necessary.
Encourage the child to talk, draw or play to release emotions after the service.
Patiently correct any misunderstandings about death or the service.
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