Q: My next-door neighbor passed away recently. She was very kind, and she and my 7-year-old daughter had a special relationship. I'm torn about whether my daughter should go to the funeral. It's going to be open casket, and I don't want to scare her. But I also know that if my friend died, I would want closure. My daughter has never lost anyone she was close to, so this is new territory for me. My parents took me to every funeral when I was little, but I hated seeing the bodies. The only clear memory I have of my grandma is her dead body in the casket, which really upset me as a kid. I don't want to do that to my daughter. What are your thoughts?
A: Although death is the only end that is certain for us all, we really struggle with it. And for good reason. The great unknown is scary, and exposing children to death? Scarier yet. Your worries are also rooted in your own childhood experiences, and I know it can be hard to combat the scary memory of seeing your grandmother in a casket. Above all, for every parent reading this, I want you to know that this is a very individual decision based on your background, your religious beliefs, your faith system and how you want to raise your children.
But, because you wrote to me, I hope my answer will bring you courage to help your child face death and funerals and, ultimately, celebrate your neighbor's life.
I admit it: I love a good funeral. I love a good funeral like I love a good wedding, a good naming ceremony, a good baptism, you name it. There is something necessary and deeply calming about marking transitions. Humans, as long as we have walked the earth, have marked transitions. Whether natural, supernatural, religious or spiritual, humans derive comfort, joy and a feeling of finality from performing and witnessing ceremonies. Maybe it was my Catholic upbringing, full of long and smoky Masses celebrating the living and the dead, that lets me see the deep and human need for funerals. So there's my bias right there. That, and the fact that my mother has never missed a funeral. "You never regret going to a funeral" is her saying.
Beyond my love of ceremony, science and common sense have shown us the good a funeral can do. In most cultures, there is no escaping funerals. Seeing dead bodies is a regular part of many people's lives. Is it tragic and sad and scary? Yes. But there is something powerful and good about it, even for a child.
What do I mean?
Your 7-year-old is old enough to think rationally but young enough to still have an active and colorful imagination. She is old enough to have patience and young enough to have pure joy and grief. With this burgeoning maturity, she can hold on to the concept of impermanence and the idea that your neighbor has left her body.
But our brain has trouble understanding what it doesn't see. This is why having a loved one go missing or never recovering a body seems to add to grief in such a profound way. Sure, you know that your loved one is dead, but your heart keeps whispering, "Is she?" The grief cycle takes longer, too. This is why we go to great pains to recover the remains of the dead for families. It matters to our minds and to our hearts. It is a way to honor our loved ones, but it also tells the brain, "This person is gone."
The pain of seeing a dead loved one is acute, but our fear of that pain extends our suffering. Seeing that body is a direct message to the brain: "Here! Look! It is over" (or just starting or just another phase, depending on your faith or spirituality).
This is all heavy for a 7-year-old, right? I don't think so. I think children are better equipped than most to handle death. As her mother, you are there to help her face this hardship and create a memory of both sadness and celebration. It is a great honor, in fact, to model grief for your daughter. To show her that we cry when we miss our friend, and laugh when we retell a story of the good times. The tears and joy honor your neighbor. And afterward, you and your daughter have a shared memory of a funeral, and that it was okay.
There are parents reading this who know in their bones that their child cannot handle a funeral. Their parental intuition tells them that their child's sensitivity, past traumas and anxieties are just too much and that the funeral will serve only to trigger the child. If this is the case, there is no reason to force your child to attend the funeral.
Instead, you can go to the funeral, bring back the program and share it with your daughter. Tell her how beautiful it was and who was there. Together, think of ways to honor and remember your neighbor. Plant a tree or flowers in her honor, write her a letter describing your favorite memories (feels silly but is so helpful), make a picture for her family and mail it — the options are endless.
Whatever you do, take your child's lead. Talk about the neighbor when she wants to, but don't force it. Because children are so naturally good at living in the moment, you can generally trust their sadness and joy.
You are the parent; you do what feels best for your family. Just keep in mind that a healthy relationship with death is a gift you can give yourself and your daughter. Cultivate your courage.
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