Helping Children Cope at a Wake, Funeral or Memorial
By Cynthia Clark
- How do I explain a wake or funeral?
This is a special time when people get together to say
goodbye to someone they love who has died.
-How do I explain a memorial service?
This is a special time for people to gather after the
death of a loved one or friend. Note: The body is
usually not present, unless in cremated form. There may
be ashes in an urn or box or there may simply be
flowers, a special object or pictures to view.
- Should I let my child go?
You know your child the best. You may find it helpful to
inform them where they will be going and why. Let them
know that you would like this to be a family event and
then let them make the choice.
- What if my child doesn't want to go?
Children should never be forced to attend. Remind them
that this is a special time when people get together to
say goodbye to someone they love. Ask them what their
fears may be about attending and try to clarify any
misconceptions. Let them know that there is usually a
reception or big meal after the service.
- How do I explain the casket?
Let your child know that a casket is a very special box
and that their loved one will be lying down inside of
it. It is often helpful to draw a rectangle shape and
then have your child draw the deceased person inside.
Explain what they will look like and whether the casket
will be open or closed. You may want to check with
someone about what the deceased is wearing, what the
casket looks like and what will be surrounding the
person and the casket. Children can process the
information you give them by drawing and coloring the
flowers, a "kneeler", or special objects.
- What if the casket is open?
Discuss what a dead body looks like and feels like.
Mention that the body may look like it is sleeping, but
remind them that dead is not the same as sleeping.
Dispel any myths that children have about dead bodies
coming back to life. Remind them that the body has
stopped working forever and that the body will not move.
Let them know that the body may feel cold and hard and
that this is because the person's blood stopped moving
when their body stopped working and that's what usually
keeps our bodies warm and soft. Let the children know
that it is alright to touch or kiss their loved one, but
do not insist that they do so. Keep in mind that if the
casket is open, the lower half of the casket may be
closed. If this is so, your child might think that the
legs are missing. Be sure to clarify this misconception
or let them see for themselves.
- What if the casket is closed?
Be sure to emphasize that the person's body is inside
the casket. You may also want to talk about why the
casket is closed because of religious beliefs, tradition
or personal reasons. It is not necessary to get into
details with children if it is closed due to an extreme
change in appearance. Ask if they have any questions
about why the casket is closed and answer them as simply
as you can. A special object or note can often be placed
inside the casket by the funeral director.
- How do I explain cremation?
Begin by reminding your child that a dead body cannot
feel pain. Limit the amount of information you give
depending on their age. Let them know that their loved
one will be lying down in a special box that will be
gently placed in a special machine that will turn the
body into ash. Wait to see if your child asks you more
questions before proceeding. You may have to add that a
very hot heat turns the body into ash. Never use the
word fire! This image can be very frightening to
children. If you choose to keep the ashes, explain that
they will be kept in a special box, container or vase
called an urn. Prepare the child if the ashes will be
scattered now, later or kept in a special place.
© 2004, Hoping Skills Company
Cindy Clark, MSW, CCLS is a social worker and certified
child life specialist and author of the booklet, A
Guidebook to Help You Prepare Children and Teens for
Wakes, Funerals and Memorial Services. She is also the
co-founder of Hoping Skills Company Sympathy Gift and
Grief Resource Center near Boston, MA. In the past,
Cindy spent several years as a child life specialist at
a children's hospital before pursuing the role of a
children's bereavement coordinator in hospice. Cindy now
utilizes her expertise in death and dying to develop
special programming for funeral homes and the community.
With nearly 15 years in the field Cindy also lends her
expertise as a speaker, author, therapist and adjunct
professor in the field of grief and bereavement.