Four at the Funeral

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Should a four year old attend his great-grandmother’s funeral? Miriam offers her advice.

Dear Miriam,

My grandmother’s health has taken a turn for the worse and we’ve started planning for the funeral. My mother asked if we should arrange babysitting for my almost four-year-old son since she’s worried that attending the service and being at the cemetery will upset him. I’m not sure what to do. Of course I don’t want to scare him or upset him unnecessarily by exposing him to a situation that he might not be ready to handle. On the other hand, I don’t want to send the message that funerals are taboo. It might even be healthy for him to attend, learn about how death is a part of life and provide some ritual and context for those conversations. What do you think?

Signed,
Four at the Funeral


Dear Funeral,

I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother’s health, and I’m sure this is a very difficult time for your family even without the added concern for your four-year-old’s understanding of the situation. As I wrote in another column recently, toddlers are likely to begin asking questions about death at this age anyway, and a practical and very real example could aid in explaining to him that death is sad, is permanent and is part of life. After that column, in which I blatantly cited no sources, some helpful friends recommended the book, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, so perhaps that book or something like it would give you some language for discussing death with your son.

Your question, though, is even more practical, regarding what to do on the day of the inevitable funeral. I think you have to assess three factors: 1) How does your son behave in quiet and somber settings? 2) How likely are there to be very upset people at the funeral?/How does your son react when he sees other people crying or visibly upset? 3) How equipped do you think you’ll be on that day to answer his questions as the funeral is happening? Based on your own answers to these questions, you’ll begin to get a clearer picture of what it will be like to have him there and whether you think it’s a good idea for you and for him. Another factor may be how well your son knows your grandmother and how upset he may be about the loss for himself.

Another school of thought is that having kids at a funeral can be great because it lightens the mood and gives all the other relatives a joyful young person to focus on who will not be experiencing grief like everyone else. Again, only you know the personalities of your son and the rest of the family, as well as the circumstances of your grandmother’s death, all of which factor into whether your son would actually be able to fill this role.

Personally, I can share that we took my kids (when they were three and five years old) to a memorial service for my husband’s 104-year-old grandmother, and it was a positive experience. There was no cemetery involved, she had lived an exceedingly long life and the relatives were all happy to see the kids. The service was also an opportunity for them to experience a sad occasion that wasn’t a tragedy and to hear lots and lots of family lore. Several months later, we experienced a deeply tragic death in our family, and we most definitely did not bring the kids to the funeral. All funerals are not the same, so whatever you end up deciding for this one doesn’t have to be your standard position if, G-d forbid, you have to make this decision again.

A couple other options to throw out there: You could hire a babysitter who takes your son away in between the funeral home and the graveside service, if that’s the way the day will be structured, or who stays with him during the service and brings him to the shiva house afterwards. You could visit a cemetery with him beforehand and see how he reacts to help you decide what his feelings might be. You could have a couple of relatives on hand to take him away or distract him if you do bring him and it doesn’t go well. And, finally, you could ask your son. Though four is young, kids are actually pretty good at gauging what they can handle. Explain to him as much about death and funerals as you like, and see what he says about wanting to be there or not. That way, you’re not making it taboo, but you’re also making it acceptable for him either way.

Be well,
Miriam