On Children, Funerals, & How Parents Make It All Worse

child at funeralThis week, my family and I said goodbye to a very important influence in our lives. We lost my grandmother, a woman whose strength and independence has been characterized as a family legacy. She had the same confidence that I see mirrored in my own daughter. The fact my little girl so closely resembled her great-grandmother was a huge point of pride, for my Gigi, my mother and myself. This loss was my daughter’s first funeral, and while I know she learned a lot, I think I learned more.

My daughter and I had discussed death in an abstract sense. She had heard, both from her Presbyterian pre-school and her family, that when you die, you go up to Heaven with God. But up until this point, I had never thought she was ready to attend a funeral. I assumed the open casket and crowds of people would be too  much for a child struggling to understand why someone she loved had to go away.

However, given my daughter’s close relationship with her great-grandmother, I felt like it would be unfair to deny her the chance to say goodbye. We knew my grandmother was sick, but we thought she had months. Then my dad called me during the day and told me to come immediately. There was time for the adults, but no opportunity to get the kids from school and let them say goodbye. The funeral would  be my daughter’s only chance.

From the very beginning, Brenna seemed to approach the situation with a matter-of-fact point of view. When I tried to sit her down to give her the news, she already knew what I was going to tell her. I sat on the couch and said, “Hunnie, can you come sit with me? Momma needs to talk to you about something.” She curled up in my lap and before I could speak she said, “Gigi’s dead.” I was shocked. I sputtered and asked how she knew. “I just know, Mom,” she told me.

I tried to prepare her for the funeral and what she would see. I let her know that her great-grandmother’s body would be laying there for us to say goodbye, but that she wouldn’t be able to talk to us or respond. She would be listening from Heaven. “It’s like she’s sleeping,” my daughter surmised. I had planned on telling her that next.

Once the day came, I brought my daughter in early before any other guests arrived. I wanted her to have a second to herself, a second to do whatever she needed to do. I was prepared for crying, for confusion, for fear. I braced myself and my mom for my little girl’s reaction. My daughter simply walked up, looking at the casket. She asked a couple basic questions like where her legs were, since half of the casket was closed. Then she started examining the flowers that were stretched along the front of the church, asking if she could pick a bouquet to take home.

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  • Christine

    I’m so sorry about your grandmother. My sister in law died unexpectedly a few months ago at the age of 25. My son is only 2 so he didn’t fully understand what I was explaining to him but he seemed to know that everyone else was sad, so it was like he tried to be sad too. Thank you for your post today and again, I’m so sorry.

  • MommyK

    I’m very sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing this; I feel like I have learned a lot by reading it. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  • C.J.

    Very sorry for your loss. Reding this brought tear to my eyes. It reminds me of when my father in law passd away when my daugher was almost 3. Funny how kids have a way of handling things that’s best or them in sad situations.

  • Ellie

    My condolences on your loss.
    I think it’s good that you took her. Growing up in a huge family, and also as the child of a minister, wedding, births and funerals were constant. I appreciate that my parents made sure to talk about all of these things frankly and didn’t try to shield us from the things that happen in life. I have been especially grateful for this in adulthood as I have seen numerous people who never went to a funeral until they were grown, and it was a very scary experience. We to see all of life’s ups and downs, and learn to handle it.
    And having little kids playing in the pews at a funeral is often a wonderful vision of the legacy that we leave, and a reminder that life goes on and flourishes. This is very comforting to many people.

  • LiteBrite

    I’m also very sorry for your loss. However, I’m glad you wrote this as it gave me something to think about. My son is about Brenna’s age, and while no one in the family is near death (that I know of) I do wonder how I would handle it should that – God forbid – occur.

  • mm

    Aww you made me tear up, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Julie

    Very sorry for your loss, Lindsay. I teared up a little bit reading this too.. I remember when my own grandmother passed away. I was 13 and my sister was 3. My grandmother was cremated, her ashes put in a small casket, and we had a funeral for her where those ashes were buried in a cemetery. When we got there, my sister saw my aunt holding the casket and started sobbing because she thought my aunt’s cat had died. When we told her what it really was, the tears stopped flowing immediately and after the service she hopped around the cemetery like it was her own personal playground. It was when we got home that her grieving began to show. My mother was concerned for all the same reasons that you talk about and I think she learned the very same lesson that day. Thanks for writing this piece. I know this is a hard time and I’m glad you were able to share it with us.

  • LindsayCross

    I just want to say thank you to everyone for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

  • BLincoln

    I am so very sorry for your loss! Death of a loved one is never easy, no matter your age. I think you handled that with grace and strength.. and that obviously was reflected in your daughter’s actions. I believe sometimes we over-protect our children from their feelings. Yes, they are going to be hurt, disappointed, angry, sad. And, I feel as you do, that we should let them have these feelings and process them as organically as possible.

    I applaud your decision to let her attend the funeral! She learned lessons not only in how to deal with her feelings, but how her culture/family/friends handle the ritual of death.

    My daughter passed away suddenly in September. She was 9. During the planning of her services, we made every effort to make sure that any and all of her young friends were welcome to attend and participate. We knew that they would be grieving and we knew their parents would struggle with how to explain it to them. And, we had come to care for her friends and their families… to not have them there felt.. empty. We assured everyone in the community that there would be no casket or urn at the calling hours or service (traumatic for anyone to see, never mind a fourth grade kid). We filled the room with flowers, pictures and many of her favorite toys and drawings. We knew that this would be the first experience with death that these children would have. We took our cues from each of them as they came to us: if they cried, we cried; if they laughed, so did we. We wanted them to know it was okay to be sad, angry, scared. But, most importantly that Emma loved them all and everyone would be okay.. we would get through it all together.

    Many people thought we were a little strange inviting, practically begging to let her friends be so involved in her death. There were times I thought it myself. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I am so glad I read your story, and that I’m not alone. Again, my sincerest condolences, and may your days be brighter!

    • C.J.

      I am so very sorry for your loss. You are an incredibly strong person. My sister had a child pass away. He wasn’t old enough to have friends yet but there were children who knew him at the funeral. I don’t think you are strange for wanting your daughter’s friends there. I’m sure it helped them a great deal. I would bring my daughters to a friends funeral if it was ok with the parents. We can’t hide tragedy from children. Her friends were a part of her life so they should be able to grieve for her. For you to have thought so much about how your daughter’s friends would feel and how important it is for them to say good bye is amazing.

    • LindsayCross

      I have to agree with C.J. It’s so amazing that you put all that thought and effort into helping your daughter’s friends. I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your story, and I wish you all the best.

  • Katielady

    i am so sorry for your loss…and i applaud your realization..
    children are not ADULTS and cannot be expected to ‘act’ like adults. they react differently and they are still working out the ‘feelings’ part of life… we lost my dad a yr and a half ago. my youngest were 8 yrs old. i knew they wouldnt grieve as we adults were, or even as my 14 y.o. would– i personally took pictures ((thought about hiring a photog but that would have upset more people than would have understood)) of everything from them getting to say goodbye, to the time between his passing and the funeral , and of the funeral. (we are picture people to begin with so it wasnt odd for ME to have a camera) i have since made a Remembrance Book and allow my children to still grieve because i believe it takes longer for the idea of death to sink in for them… there are still moments they break down and cry even after a year–just like i do…

  • KF

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My dad died when I was 3, and I attended his funeral. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I remember seeing my mom cry and thinking that crying was the right thing to do, but mostly I just held her hand and sat in her lap. I do remember asking when the angels would be taking him to Heaven, because I honestly expected to see angels literally carrying the casket up to Heaven. A few days after the funeral, even weeks after, I cried a lot because I missed my dad, and because by then it was apparent that he wasn’t coming home. I don’t think I really completely processed my dad’s death until my teenage years.
    I think it’s good that you took your daughter, and good that you realized kids grieve in their own way, and in their own time. It was good that your daughter was able to laugh with her cousins and when the preacher said something amusing, and it’s good that she cried when she needed to. Just as it’s important for kids to learn that it’s ok for them to be sad when someone they love dies, it’s also important for them to learn that they are still allowed to feel happy about other things, they don’t have to be sad all the time.

  • keldam

    My grandma also passed away this week and my family struggled with the decision of how to involve her great-grandchildren. They were very important to her and loved her very much. I was also concerned with how upset I would be and therefore whether or not I would be able to watch my 4 year old daughter at the viewings/service. One thing we definitely noticed- if 1 child was sad and crying, the other young children started crying. It was almost like a chain reaction- (the kids were 7, 5, and two 4 year olds). The funeral was today and it was very hard but I’m glad we involved the children in my family. It was a teachable moment about death and I know my Gram would have been happy they were there. I’m sorry for your loss. I think when it comes to death and children everyone needs to do what feels right for their child.

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