Question: My father is seriously ill and when he passes away, I’d like to bring my children — who are aged from seven to 10 — to the funeral to say goodbye to their grandfather, but my wife insists they are too young to attend. What should I do?
Rabbi Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.
It might help to bear in mind that death is part of life and for the vast majority of human history children were exposed to it. Before the advent of modern medicine death was very much part of a child’s experience as the result of war, pestilence, infant mortality and death in childbirth.
It is only fairly recently that we have come to expect those we love to live well into ripe old age and along with this expectation is a deep discomfort with the notion of death and the inability to think or talk about it. The point is that children may be more resilient than we give them credit for.
The important thing is to be honest about what death is and what it is not. A good rule of thumb is to give children as much information as they need without necessarily overwhelming them with answers to questions they haven’t considered. The worst thing one can do is to downplay the situation.
They are entitled to know how sad you are as this invites them to likewise express their feelings of sadness or anger at losing a beloved grandfather. It is only through such expression that one can begin to accept the death of a loved one and start to heal.
I recall attending a funeral where the rabbi told a bereaved grandchild that his grandmother was still present, only she was no longer visible. While philosophers can debate the meaning of presence and absence, misleading a child into believing that his dead grandmother was somehow still present can only confuse, if not frighten, the child and delay the much needed grieving process.
As to attendance at a funeral, there is no hard and fast rule and each parent needs to assess their child’s level of maturity. For some it might be a helpful way of coming to terms with the finality of death, for others it can be unnecessarily traumatic. Listen carefully to your wife’s concerns and decide together if attending is in the best interest of your children.
If together you decide that it is not, there are other options available such as having them speak about your father at the shivah services. You could also have them play a part in the stone-setting service which, although held at the burial grounds, is not as raw as a funeral and is more about memory than grieving.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.
This is not a matter of right or wrong, but what is appropriate for your particular family (and which may differ from other families in similar situations).
There are strong cases to be made on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, it is good that children should become accustomed to the natural rhythm of human existence, which includes losses as well as gains. There was a certain harmony in Victorian paintings of the entire family, including toddlers, gathered around a deathbed. Nowadays, most people die alone in hospital or care homes, with the result that children (and adults) are divorced from death and can become fearful of it.
Attending a funeral is a way of becoming used to this natural process. It is also easier if a child’s first funeral is someone other than a parent, so that their emotions are less raw. But, if they do attend, it is vital that you fully explain to them beforehand what will be happening, so everything is expected and not a shock.
It might also be important that someone other than you supervises them, because their presence will change your role from a son mourning his father, to a father looking after his children, and may detract from your ability to grieve properly.
You also have to be prepared for very direct questions, such as “what if Grandpa doesn’t like being in the box and wants to get out?”. Honest explanations are the best response, albeit done sensitively.
On the other hand, if it is felt that the children will be upset or frightened — something totally independent of their actual age — then there is no necessity for them to be present. This would apply equally if their presence might upset one of the parents, and turn the funeral from a loving goodbye to a resentful trauma.
In this case, however, it is essential not to make the children feel they have let you down, nor that they have failed their grandfather, nor that they have been excluded.
To combat this, they should be given a positive role to make them feel included in the overall process: such as being asked to write a poem that can be read out at the funeral, or being asked to wait at the house to which everyone returns, told they are “in charge” and to greet guests and take coats.