Children understand death

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Green Funeral Company’s Claire and Rupert Callender do not believe children should be shielded from the funerals. Ru rationalises children just want to feel encompassed and that includes to the truth of the death of someone loved.

There is a school of thought which still thinks young children shouldn’t go to funerals, that they’re too distracting, they don’t really understand what’s going on and become upset when they see their parents in distress.

I disagree. I was seven years old when my father died, and in keeping with the mores of the time, did not attend his funeral. This was my mother’s biggest parenting regret. It made me furious for years, planted a seed of doubt in my mind that he was even dead at all. To me, he simply walked out of the door one morning and vanished. He was a soldier, and I fantasised he was on a secret mission. On his rare appearances in my dreams, he held a finger to his lips conspiratorially and winked.

Now, we meet with parents who want to shield their children from this pain, the death of someone they love dearly, for all the right reasons, but with a desperate futility. They’ve convinced themselves before we even meet that the children should stay at home. We don’t insist that they bring them to the funeral, but we do use our considerable powers of persuasion to convince them otherwise.

Children understand death on an instinctive level. What confuses them is ambiguity, adults pretending something won’t happen when it clearly will, flat contradictions to what their instincts are telling them. They need the truth, delivered clearly, each word chosen with precision. Grandpa isn’t lost, nor has he fallen asleep, he is dead, and yes that’s really sad. At the funeral, lots of people will be crying, including me but that’s okay, it’s only love.

For a child who has had a parent die, every moment must be choreographed like a play, for the funeral will be an event they will revisit in their future, much more than they will actually be present to at the time. They will need a map to find their way back, landmarks to orientate them, flags saying I was here, so we create a strong memory, photographs, keepsakes, recordings, witnesses for corroboration, even smells. They will return years later in search of answers, and their grief will be there patiently waiting for them.

Children are stronger than we give them credit for, and simpler too. They just need to feel included and welcome in their own lives, even the painful bits, especially the painful bits, for that is when we all really need to feel loved.

This will pass.