Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With a Parent`s Terminal Illness

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How can children be prepared for the memorial ritual or funeral?

Years ago, people believed that children should not be included in funerals, memorials, or other rituals around death. They thought it would be too hard for them, that children were too young to understand, and they would be frightened by other people’s distress. We have since learned from children’s experiences that this is not always true. Children often felt betrayed when they could not say good-bye to someone they loved. They felt that their relationship with the person who died was not valued, that death was not a natural part of life, but instead something too frightening to confront. As a result, they were not able to cope as well with the loss or with their emotions. They often felt these effects for many years after their parent’s death.

It’s now common for children to take part in the ritual of a funeral or memorial service because they, too, need to say good-bye. Attending such a rite helps them understand that death is final. Explain to your children that this is the way we say good-bye to the people we love. Depending on their age, their attention span, and on how much adult supervision they need, children may participate in all or part of the ritual. If the child plans to put something in the casket or send it off with the parent, be sure they understand how and when they can do this. You may still need to remind them when the time comes, and walk with them to help.

The nature of the ritual varies depending on the culture, religion, and/or beliefs of the family. In many faiths there is a viewing with either a closed or open casket which happens before the actual church service and burial. In the Jewish faith, there may be a ceremony in the synagogue or a graveside service. For some people, cremation (burning a body to ashes) is the preferred ritual.

A child should be prepared for the ritual and given enough detail so they know what to expect. If there will be a viewing with an open casket, the child needs to know that. Depending on how young they are, it might be useful to review what it means to be dead. People may come to the funeral home to visit with the family and offer their sympathy, prayers may be said, and other routines will be followed depending on the particular ritual. If there is a church service, describe what will happen there. If there are plans to go to the cemetery, tell them what will happen beforehand.

Whatever social ritual may happen afterwards should also be explained. Children sometimes have a hard time understanding what looks like a party after services where people looked pretty sad. Explain that people can’t be sad all the time and there will be other times when the sadness will come back. The time that people spend with their friends after a funeral is important as memories of the dead person are shared and people are comforted by others who care about them. In the future, these memories of happy times will comfort us. Children also should expect sadness that comes back over and over, which slowly becomes less painful as time goes on.

Children also need to be prepared for the emotions they will have during a memorial ritual or funeral. This may be one of the few times they see adults close to them crying. Children can cope if they see it as the way we say goodbye to people we love. Children will usually want to take part in this ritual with their family. If they seem frightened by what they imagine it to be, they probably have some mistaken idea in their minds about it. It’s rare that a child does not want to join in something the whole family is doing, so it’s wise to explore whatever incorrect ideas the child may have. For example, they may not fully understand the transition from life to death and worry that the person is still alive when they are put into the ground. Remind them again what being dead means and that the person as we knew them is no longer here. Emphasize that the dead parent is no longer suffering and no longer feels any pain.

How can cremation be explained to a child?

Cremation is harder to explain to children because the body is disposed of by fire. If a child is not totally clear on the real nature of death—that the person no longer sees, feels, thinks—this can be a scary idea. Reassure the child that the person is not able to feel anything anymore and that their body will be turned into ashes, which will then be buried or kept in a special place. Avoid using the word “burn” when talking with the child, since it may make the child think of the person being in pain.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012