Death and Kids: Navigating Funerals with Kids


death and kidsIn some ways, I hope this is a post you never need to read. I wish this wasn’t a part of the deal in helping our kids navigate the world.

I know death isn’t an easy topic, but next to weddings, funerals do often represent a time when family can gather close, find the best in one another, and focus on the love that binds them.  

My husband and I both lost our mothers pre-kids, and we regularly talk about their lives, how much they would have loved our kids, and our family beliefs about life and death.  

This isn’t easy territory.

“How did you lose her — can we find Grandma?”

“What does ‘passed away’ mean?”

“Does she miss me like you miss her?”

Despite these early talks, my children hadn’t ever attended a funeral. I hadn’t even really thought about it. As funerals came up over the past five years, my husband and I played the divide and conquer card (he watches the kids, I attend on behalf of our family) without much thought or conversation as to why.  

This summer, we had two unexpected deaths in my family — my grandfather and my aunt. For some reason I can’t quite articulate, I found myself wrestling with whether we should all attend the funerals and what the implications might be.  

Here are a list of  topics our family considered in the decision making process.

Preparing for the Funeral

Timing. Both our family funerals were going to take place in late afternoon about two hours from where we live.  Many family members were going to arrive early in the day or the night before, but we felt that giving our kids at least the chance of a car nap would ensure we would be able to stay longer once we arrived. We opted to each work half a day, send the kids to daycare until after lunch, and then drive down.

Family Expectations. Our timing decisions led to some disappointment for family members who were hoping to spend more time with our children. Especially in a time when emotions are running high and hearts are hurting, it can be really difficult to know you are letting people down. With that being said, I had peace and confidence that I was doing what was best for my immediate family while trying to support my extended family.  

Language of Death. I am very glad my husband and I discussed the terms we wanted to use regarding death and our beliefs. We didn’t have a sit-down conversation (our kids are 5, 3, and 6 months) prior to the event, but I wanted to be prepared and on the same page because I anticipated that other attendees might have different beliefs (and that my children might actively or passively hear these conversations). We did choose to equip our oldest with some simple phrases he could use when talking to my grandma and uncle.

Attending the Funeral

What to Wear. This one I’m still not sure on — what are kids supposed to wear to funerals? Do they need to be dressed in black? Should little boys be in suits? We opted for khakis and polos both times.  We knew they would mainly be playing with cousins and wanted them to be able to freely and joyfully.   

Viewing the Body. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would want to view the body (I’m a visual person and images stick with me) so I had no way of gauging if I would want my children to do so. We decided we would decide in the moment, but that we were okay if our boys wanted to and we would advocate for them (if needed) if they didn’t want to. It turned out they were curious, not scared, and so we stood with the body for a period of time. My oldest had a series of questions that I tried to wing answering in the best brief, developmentally appropriate, and consistent way I could.

Processing after the Funeral

Both times, I felt like the emotions hit me after the funeral.  I’m pretty sure the same was true for my kiddos. They did great during the events but between car naps, bribery sugar, overstimulation with cousins, and not being able to fully understand what was going on with the adults around them, it took us a bit to get our footing again after we were home.

I wish I had done a better job building in down time for regaining our equilibrium. That being said, especially in a season of loss, perhaps the best thing to consider and prepare for is how to give yourself space and support to be well.  

What would you recommend to other mamas as they seek to navigate loss and death well with kids?


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