Friday 18 April 2014

How to help a child cope with a death in the family

The funeral of Princess Diana: "From a child's point of view I think it is helpful for them to be at funerals."

Even your child needs to grieve at the loss of a loved one

My family is going through a difficult time at the minute. My father-in-law is dying. I have two beautiful boys aged four and nearly two.

My dilemma is, when my father-in-law does pass away, do I take my four-year-old son to the funeral?

He knows that his Grandad is sick and in the hospital, and they always had a great relationship.

Ordinarily, I probably would have said "No," but I have been speaking to a friend of mine and she advised me to contact you for advice.


My usual starting point is to wonder why wouldn't we include children in funerals?

Perhaps we consider not including children to protect them, in some way, from the sadness of death. Maybe we worry we will be too busy, distracted, or upset at the funeral to mind them properly. Maybe we worry we won't be able to participate if we have to mind our children.

But from a child's point of view I think it is helpful for them to be at funerals. Children have an emotional reaction to the death of relatives, and being part of the funeral can often help their expression of those feelings.

For example, whether he goes to the funeral or not, your son may be intrigued, anxious, angry, or upset about his Grandad dying.

He may have many questions and fears about death, both that of his Grandad and even his own, and your, mortality. This is quite a common reaction for young children. Understanding and reassurance is important.

It is never nice to anticipate a loved-one's death. However, serious illness does, sometimes at least, allow us to prepare for the inevitable. Part of your preparation with your son may be to talk about death and what that means.

Then, at least, the funeral, the public grieving, and the celebration of his Grandad's life will make more sense to him. It will be important for your son to say goodbye to his Grandad, just like it will be important for you and your husband.

Funerals offer everyone an opportunity to share their grief publicly. They offer an opportunity to recognise and acknowledge all that was good about the person who has died. They offer a strong sense of community and solidarity to those who feel the loss most.

I think it is important to include children in this as they too feel the loss, and so may benefit from that communal and social support.

The funeral may be a very upsetting occasion for you, your husband, and your son, but at least it will make sense for your son why everyone seems so sad.

It may help to normalise his own strong feelings in the aftermath of his Grandad's death.

You could even consider bringing your two year old, although this may just be too distracting for you and your husband.

Practically, with one child or two present, you may want to plan for someone else (perhaps one of your siblings, or a friend) to be ready to step in and mind either or both of them at any stage, to allow you and your husband your own opportunity to grieve on that day.

At least then if you both feel overwhelmed you know that your children will still be looked after.

Funerals, and the burial and gathering afterwards, can also be a very long and draining day for everyone, four year olds included. This is another reason to have a minder available to look after him if he gets tired.

Importantly, though, if he attends the funeral you will also have a shared experience with him that may be a valuable reference point for him, which clearly marks the end of his Grandad's life, as he too grieves.


David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author. Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets that he cannot enter into any personal correspondence.

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Irish Independent

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