The same feeling socks me in the gut every time I walk into a wake or make a shiva call: “I don’t want to be here. This is sad and uncomfortable.” Then my heart and my head take over, and tell me, “You should be here. Take care of the mourners. Honor the deceased.” And that I know how to do, because I’ve been attending funerals since I was a small child.
My children’s great-grandfather passed away last week at age 90. Just as surely as we took our 9, 7, and 4-year-olds to visit him (though not enough – it’s never enough), we took them in hand to Great-Grandpa’s wake and funeral.
· My kids got to see their extended family at its best and closest: telling stories, crying and laughing together, holding hands. The family was a strong, united One over those days, and we were part of that One. My children belong to something bigger than our little family of five.
· They have a chance to see their relatives as whole, complex people. They can learn to empathize, and to provide comfort, instead of seeing Nana only as the bearer of fun and gifts. She had a Daddy too. It was hard for my children to see her sad, but it was also inspiring to see her strength.
· Children provide hope. Immediately before the funeral, we made our last prayers at the casket and gave Great-Grandma hugs. As my wide-eyed 4-year-old tumbled towards her for an embrace, Great-Grandma exclaimed, “Precious girl!” and she meant it. Sometimes we need to see something whole and young and perfect when there is sadness all around us, and that’s what a (well-behaved) preschooler can offer at a funeral.
· They don’t need to be protected — usually. Kids know about crying. Many of them do it every day. Usually we want them to stop, because it’s uncomfortable for us, and we very badly want our children to be happy. But hard feelings are important too, and we can learn to guide kids through feeling sorrow and discomfort and coming out okay on the other side of those emotions. I would think carefully before bringing my children to an especially tragic funeral, perhaps one for a child or a young parent – something that could be truly frightening – but the funeral of an older relative? This sadness they can manage, and it will strengthen them.
· They need practice with funerals. Nobody likes them, but they have to happen. Wakes and funerals can be foreign territory with their singular requirements for etiquette, dress, and behavior. Better to get practice early, when it’s someone the child isn’t as close to, than to layer a sea of funeral-manners confusion on top of truly deep mourning. Just a few months ago, my kids stopped with us at the wake of a quiet, kind man our family knew from church, just to quickly pay our respects. The children didn’t really know Elmer, but they learned what to do and say, and because we’d gone to his viewing, Great-Grandpa’s body wasn’t the first one they’d seen in an open casket.
· In learning about death, children learn to treasure human life. My kids’ normal experience with death is throwing a dead tree in a brush pile or squashing ants on our kitchen floor. Perhaps some families also have small goodbyes for beloved pets. But the elaborate ceremony and seriousness of human funerals says something else: This is different, and this is big. We are not trees or ants. In respectful loss, we pass to children a reverence for the irreplaceable gift of each human life.
· Funerals connect generations, past and future. Great-Grandpa was a World War II veteran, and uniformed Navy came to his graveside and performed a beautifully moving flag ceremony. It ended with a presentation of the flag to Great-Grandma, and the heart-stopping words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Afterwards, I reminded my 9-year-old that in 80 years, he will be able to tell his grandchildren the story of honoring his great-grandpa who served in that important, tragic war that will then be 150 years past. He was just as awed as he should have been by this fact.
It’s not easy going to funerals, nor taking kids to them. But it is not our job to make our children’s lives easy, and it is our job to parent and guide through the hard things too. You can do it, and so can they.