Would you recommend that we take our three young children, ages three, four, and six, to their grandfather's funeral? My father-in-law is terminally ill and is not expected to live for more than a few weeks. As my husband and I begin preparing ourselves, both practically and emotionally, for his passing, I'm wondering what arrangements we should make for the kids. Should we have them attend the services?
There are several factors you'll want to consider. To begin with, we'd suggest that questions about funeral attendance can probably wait until after your father-in-law has actually passed away. In the meantime, it would be a good idea to prepare your children for what's ahead by gently introducing them to the subject of death.
Don't be afraid to talk to your kids about their grandfather's condition. Be honest with them about what's happening. Find out how they're feeling and what they're thinking. Use age-appropriate language to explain that grandpa is very, very sick. Tell them that people sometimes get so sick that their bodies stop working and they die. Help them understand what this means. Explain that grandpa will soon be leaving this world and that you won't be able to see him anymore. Give them an opportunity to react to this information in their own way.
If your father-in-law is a Christian, you can also point out that he will be getting a brand-new body in heaven, one that will never get sick or die. Bear in mind, however, that most young children don't have the capacity to grasp abstract concepts like death and eternity. There's a good chance that the smaller kids will not fully understand what is happening to your father-in-law and won't be able to appreciate the permanence of death. So keep the discussion simple. Gear it to your children's level of maturity and insight. Most of all, focus on God's promise of eternal life to all who believe in Jesus. It's vital to concentrate on this hopeful aspect of death.
Provided your father-in-law is able to have visitors, it might be a good idea to allow your children to say goodbye to him, especially if they've enjoyed a relationship with him in the past. If his appearance has changed due to his illness – for example, if he has lost all of his hair as a result of cancer treatments – you may want to explain this beforehand. Be sure to lay everything out in a calm, non-threatening way. If you appear to be anxious or fearful, your children will pick up on this and it will cause them to feel afraid.
If you've gone to the trouble of laying this kind of groundwork ahead of time, you'll probably have a much clearer sense of what to do when the day of the funeral arrives. You know your own children better than anyone else, so you're in the best position to assess how they might be impacted by the service. If you've already talked things out thoroughly, there's a good chance that attending could turn out to be a positive experience for the whole family. But that's up to you to decide.
Here are a few additional thoughts you may want to ponder as you work your way through this process.
Here at Focus on the Family we take the view that death is a part of life. A funeral service can be a great opportunity for teaching children about this important aspect of the Christian worldview. Remember the words of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 7:2: "Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart." Granted, this way of expressing the idea is probably too morose for little children. But the basic principle remains valid nonetheless. Death eventually comes to all of us, and it's best if kids are enabled to grasp this truth early on.
It may also be helpful to remember why we attend funeral services in the first place. There are at least three fundamental reasons. First, we want to honor the person who has died. Second, we are concerned to show our support for the surviving members of the family. Third, if it's a Christian service with a specifically Christian emphasis, we attend a funeral or memorial gathering to uplift Christ and to proclaim to everyone present that He has won the victory over the grave. If you can help your children understand these concepts, you will have advanced their spiritual training by several crucial steps.
Finally, your decision may ultimately depend on how you plan to manage certain details of the funeral service. Will the casket be present, and if so, will it be a closed- or open-casket funeral? If open-casket, do you think it would be helpful or appropriate for your kids – especially the two younger ones – to see their grandfather in death? As we've already indicated, these are questions that you alone can resolve. In the end, intuition and parental insight into the temperament, character, and maturity of each of your children may be your best and most reliable guides.
An excellent resource for families in your situation is Dr. Norm Wright's book It's Okay to Cry: A Parent's Guide to Helping Children Through the Losses of Life. It includes some great practical suggestions for helping kids cope with the death of a loved one. You can order a copy by calling Focus on the Family or visiting our Online Store.
Below you'll find a list of some additional resources and referrals. If you think it might be beneficial, we'd also like to invite you to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our counselors. Call our Counseling department for a free consultation.
Helping Children Through Grief (resource list)
How to Help Your Child Grieve