Losing a parent young is a loss that’s difficult to understand unless you’ve personally experienced it or seen it first-hand, like funeral directors.
And for young children, it can be a shocking and confusing experience. When they lose someone so close to them, like a parent who has always been there, it’s life-altering. So stands the question, should they attend their parent’s funeral?
The Child Bereavement Study wanted to explore this question. Through analyzing children’s experiences at their parent’s funeral, Phyllis R. Silverman and J. William Worden discuss the findings in their analysis Children’s Understanding of Funeral Ritual published in the OMEGA Journal of Death and Dying.
Let’s go over the findings of this study and whether attending their parent’s funeral benefited the children.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study was to understand the meaning a funeral has for children. It’s about more than just whether they attended the funeral. It’s about how they coped with their feelings and it’s about their understanding of death.
Did attending the funeral help the children with their grief journey in any way? Or did it have a negative impact on their healing process?
Before we discuss the study’s findings, let’s go over some key facts about the participants:
- The study analyzed 125 children ages six to 17 who lost a parent.
- 74% of the children lost their father while 26% lost their mother.
- There was almost an equal number of boys and girls.
- There was 70 total participating families from the Boston, Massachusetts area.
- The families were from a variety of religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
- To participate, parents must have lived together with their children at the time of death.
- Families were invited to participate by the funeral directors who served them.
Children Who Didn’t Attend Their Parent’s Funeral
Six of the 125 children, all but one younger than 10 years old, didn’t attend their parent’s funeral. Three of these children’s surviving parents made the decision for their child not to attend. The other three children were given a choice for whether they wanted to go or not.
It’s important to note that these children’s parents all died unexpectedly. Therefore, researchers found that the decision not to attend was mostly due to not being able to comprehend the loss. Some parents also were uncomfortable with the thought of their child attending the funeral.
Children Who Attended (Four Months After)
After interviewing the children four months after the funeral, the researchers found that young children couldn’t remember many details. Children ages six to nine remembered the background activity and who attended the funeral. The teenagers talked about the deceased rather than background activity. A lot of the children had similar descriptions of feeling “shocked” and “numb.”
A seven-year-old mentioned how a nice man, referring to the funeral director, let the children sit in the lounge. That way if they needed a break, they had somewhere to go. This shows the positive impact funeral directors had on the grieving children.
Children Who Attended (One Year Anniversary)
It wasn’t until a year later that the children were able to better reflect on their funeral experience. They all expressed their happiness that they attended the funeral. They also elaborated on their feelings during the funeral, such as being “in a daze” and feeling “sadness” and “blankness.”
The children thought it was important that they were at the funeral. They described it as an opportunity to see their parent one last time and say goodbye. Some also described it as an opportunity to show their parent respect and accept the death.
One young boy responded, “He was my father. I would have felt weird not to have gone. I had to see him for the last time.”
Children Who Attended (Two Year Anniversary)
Two years after their parent’s death, the children showed the importance of honoring their life. They asked the children what kind of funeral they would have created for their parent. They responded with ways to make it more personal, showing that personalization matters even to children. Some said they would make it a large event with music while others said it would be close to nature.
One thirteen-year-old girl said, “It would have been better if it could have been in the mountains which he loved. It would have given people a better sense of who he was.”
What These Findings Mean
So, back to the main question, should children attend their parent’s funeral? According to this study’s findings, it benefited them in many ways. It allowed them to accept the death, say a final goodbye, and honor their life.
The children recognized the meaning of the funeral and were glad they went and were a part of it. It also helped them with their healthy grieving process. But, ultimately, it’s up to the child’s surviving parent or guardian to decide what’s best for their child.