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?

It’s healthy for children to be allowed 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, but the surviving parent or caregiver needs to talk with the child about what to expect before they go. Explain to the child 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. Ask the child if he or she wants to do something special to say goodbye. Give examples like drawing a picture or writing a poem. Older children may want to share a memory if others are doing so.

Children will usually want to take part in memorial or funeral rituals 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 best to explore whatever incorrect ideas the child may have. For instance, 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.

Describe the funeral or memorial ritual for the child in detail and tell them what others will do and how they may feel. Make sure the child or teen knows what to expect. For instance, if there will be a viewing with an open casket, the child needs to know that. The child also needs to know that it’s OK to touch their parent’s body, but they should not be made to do so.

The child may want to give something to the parent, by putting it in the casket, the ground, or the cremation urn. If the child wants to do something like this, explain how this would work. You may need to remind them when the time comes, and walk with them to help. You may also want to assign a caretaker to take a younger child outside for a break during the service, since it’s likely to be too long for young children to sit through. Children also need to be prepared for the emotions they may have during a memorial ritual or funeral. Tell them adults often cry at funerals, and it’s OK for the child to cry, too. Children can cope if they see it as the way we say goodbye to people we love.

Whatever social ritual may happen afterward should also be explained. Children sometimes have a hard time understanding what looks like a party after services where people looked so 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 that sadness will come back over and over, but slowly become less painful as time goes on.

How do you explain cremation?

Cremation can be 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: 01/14/2015
Last Revised: 03/20/2015