How to prepare children and young people for a funeral

Girl and her parent/carer (Winston's Wish)

Four minute read

Liz Hudson from Winston’s Wish a charity for bereaved children, young people and the adults supporting themshares some practical insights to help prepare children and young people for a funeral.

Grief is as individual as a fingerprint. We all grieve differently, whether we're children or adults. and we will each grieve slightly differently for every bereavement.

There are many factors that affect a child’s experience of grief and death. The most obvious, perhaps, is age. Children and young people at different developmental ages will understand and react to the death of someone close to them in different ways.

The way in which the person has died — whether it was sudden or if there was time to prepare — also has an impact.

Other factors that can complicate include what the family and child have experienced before becoming bereaved. This can include the family’s financial situation, exposure to issues such as substance abuse or domestic violence, and whether the child or young person has experienced the death of someone before.

In most cases, there will be a funeral to organise. There is no blueprint that is right for everybody, but there are some ways in which we can help children and young people feel prepared for the funeral and included on the day.

1. Prepare the child or young person for what will happen at the funeral.

They might not have been to a funeral before or even know what a funeral is. It helps to talk through what is likely to happen at the funeral ceremony in detail. Don’t assume that they already know what to expect.

Include things like, ‘will the person's body be in a coffin?’, ‘Will they be buried or cremated?’, ‘Where will that happen?’, ‘Who will be there?’. And be open to their questions, answering these as honestly and clearly as possible with age-appropriate language.

We also encourage people to use language like ‘died’ or ‘dead’ rather than metaphors or euphemisms that a child might struggle to understand.

2. Explain what is expected of the child or young person.

Think about what role they might be expected to play in the funeral. For example, maybe the coffin will be open in the church or in the place where the ceremony is happening. The child or young person might be expected to line up with everyone else to see the person’s body, or they might be encouraged not to.

There might also be opportunities for the child or young person to do a reading, choose a piece of music, leave a message on the coffin or to back-fill the grave.

It’s important to be clear in advance about what’s expected of them, so that there are no shocks on the day of the funeral itself.

3. Enable the child or young person to choose how involved they would like to be.

Choice is really important. There are many choices that children or young people can make around the funeral. These choices give them some control over how involved or not they would like to be.

It may be choosing whether or not to visit the person, to see their body or spend time with them before the funeral. It may be decisions around whether to attend the funeral or not.

If the child or young person does not attend the funeral, perhaps because it is taking place in another country, there is a direct cremation, or they have chosen not to attend; finding alternative goodbye rituals can be really helpful.

This could be as simple as going to a special place, gathering with friends and family, doing something that they enjoyed doing with the person who has died or going for a memory walk to think about that person.

4. Allow children and young people to change their minds.

It might be that a child or young person decides they want to attend the funeral but wakes up on the day feeling that it's too much and they don't want to go. Reassure them that it’s okay to change their mind at any point.

We often suggest to families that they designate a specific person at the funeral who the child or young person knows and trusts to keep an eye out for them.

This means that, for example, if the child or young person finds the ceremony overwhelming or they want to leave, that person can leave with them and focus on supporting them while the rest of the ceremony is able to continue.

5. Validate children and young people’s grief.

We don’t always know how grief will affect an individual child or young person. This is particularly true for young people who experience the death of a friend.

There can be very close connections between a young person and their friends — often maintained through social media — without families necessarily realising how significant these relationships are. Involving teenagers in the funeral of a friend can offer a good opportunity for them to say goodbye, but it doesn’t always happen.

This can lead to a sense of ‘disenfranchised grief’ — where someone is grieving, but it’s not recognised. It could be that that young person was much closer to that friend than anybody realised, or that the friendship might not have been known about. Sometimes they can feel like they're isolated, or that their grief isn't acknowledged or recognised.

6. Reach out for support if you need it.

We know these conversations are hard, especially if you are grieving yourself. That’s why Winston’s Wish supplies advice and support for children, young people and adults supporting them and resources for all ages.

We have a free phone helpline on 08088 020 021 which anybody can call — young people, parents, carers or professionals. It's open 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday.

We get a lot of calls about pre-bereavement and just post-bereavement from families who are thinking about how to tell children and young people that someone has died and how to explain what a funeral is. We also have a live chat service and offer one-to-one support.

Poppy's approach

We always support people to make the choices that are right for them. Often, when children are involved in a funeral, it provides a way for them to ask questions, to say goodbye and to share their feelings with family and friends.

Read Meg’s story about how she involved young children in her father’s funeral or check out our book suggestions to help talk with children about death.

To stay in touch with all the latest news and updates from Poppy's by email, sign up here or contact us if you need help planning a funeral.

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