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A Chance to Say Goodbye

Children shouldn't automatically be excluded from funerals and wakes, experts say. They need to learn about mortality and how to deal with emotional pain.


When Nancy Sinasohn's grandmother died, she had doubts about letting her children, ages 4 and 6, attend the funeral. She discussed it with her husband and parents, who had mixed feelings. Finally, she confided in her rabbi, who advised her to bring the children.

"The rabbi said if the children attend, they can say their last goodbyes like everyone else," Sinasohn says.

Just talking about death to a child can make parents uncomfortable. Years ago it was common practice to leave the children with a baby sitter while adults attended the funeral. But experts say there are many benefits in taking them.

"I think it's very important for all people, children included, who lose a loved one to say goodbye," says Barbara Rosenbaum, a psychologist with a practice in Woodland Hills who specializes in working with families and children with post-traumatic stress syndrome. She says attending the service helps a child deal with the loss.

It also gives the child a better understanding about death, says Father Gregory Coiro, director of media relations for the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles. "They can see that people mourn, and that it's OK to cry and have sad feelings. That we will miss this person." He says children should learn that even though the person is no longer here, his or her spirit will always be with us.

When you don't bring the children, they feel left out, says Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "No matter how young they are, they realize something is happening, and they cannot be part of that." He also says children have big imaginations, and, left at home, they might imagine something worse that what's actually happening.

Funerals are a fact of life, says the Rev. Cecil L. Murray, senior pastor of the First AME Church in Los Angeles. "These are the realities a child must learn," he says. "To say that we'll defer this education until the child is 15 is even harder because then it comes to the child as a cultural shock. That's delaying pain and delaying the classroom."

In deciding if a child is old enough to attend a funeral, experts say parents should use their child's developmental and emotional well-being as a gauge.

Jeff and Becky Ashley of Ventura brought their daughter Rachel, who was 3 at the time, to the funeral of their next-door neighbor last year. Becky says Rachel was very close to the elderly man and would visit him several times a week. When he died of a heart attack, Becky believed she had to tell her daughter what happened.

"Jeff and I talked about whether or not we should take her to the funeral," Becky recalls. "At the last minute we decided to bring her. We thought if it was too much for her, we'd leave." Rachel asked a lot of questions and Becky kept her answers as simple as possible. The Ashleys were glad they brought their daughter because it made it easier for her to understand why her neighbor was no longer around. Afterward, the widow gave Rachel a big hug and thanked her for coming.

Rosenbaum says some of the questions children most commonly ask are: What does death mean? Where does the body go? Will you die too? Sometimes younger children may feel guilty about the death of a loved one and ask, "Did I do something wrong?" An older child might ask, "Why did she die?"

There is the occasional question an adult isn't expecting to hear. Becky Ashley says that months after her neighbor was buried, Rachel asked if he had a skeleton and could it move. "She's fascinated with bones because she has seen them at Halloween and on cartoon shows dancing and such, so she figured he could move his too."

It's important to prepare children ahead of time and let them know what is going to happen. Coiro says that may mean telling them that there will be a box, that the person will be in that box, and that it will go into the ground. If the person is cremated, the parents should say that the body was burned and that the ashes are in the urn and they will be put in a special place. Coiro stresses that children should be told that the cremation didn't hurt the person.

Rosenbaum adds that while you can't shield children from death, you don't want them to be frightened, so you should never bring a child who is fearful or insecure, no matter how old he or she is. "Parents know if they have an anxious child," she says.

To make it easier for the child at the funeral, Murray says a parent or family member must be there to comfort the child, hold him and answer all questions. "If a child has a support group, he can withstand the trauma." He says the experience with this kind of support helps children learn to deal with emotional pain.

Another concern parents have is that they will be too distraught to care for their children at the funeral. Schulweis says he has never known this to be a problem. He says parents are less likely to become hysterical if their children are with them and are usually comforted by their presence, particularly in the death of their own parent. "In some sense, the parent they are grieving for has immortality in their children."

Whether or not parents bring their children, they should encourage them to talk about the death. "Very often adults don't choose to say out loud what they are thinking because they want to protect the child," Rosenbaum says. "What we all need, young and old, it to talk naturally about that person because it's very comforting."

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