When it comes to death, nothing makes it worse than the involvement of small children. Whether they have lost a parent, grandparent or close relative, watching their faces carry the weight of the grief that they feel makes the funeral even harder for those in attendance, especially their parents.
I wasn’t aware of this theory when my seemingly healthy father died suddenly from a heart attack two months ago.
In the maelstrom of shock and grief that followed, the idea of taking any of his much loved six grandchildren to the funeral was quickly dismissed by both myself and my brothers. With the children’s ages ranging from age 1 to 9, we felt they were too young, would be overwhelmed and that Dad himself, a practical man, would not have wanted it.
My nine-year old niece was given the option but refused.
We were all relieved. None of us wanted her to see how broken her invincible Granny was that day, so struck with grief her legs went numb and we had to physically help her into the service.
Neither did I want my kids there to see my shaking hands. Selfishly, I wanted the funeral to myself. With three small children to care for, there’s not much room to grieve without frightening them too much, their daily requirements crowding out any quiet contemplation of the loss of the Dad I adored.
The funeral was a chance to see him off without distraction, to talk to and thank the many people that came to pay their respects without worrying about kids’ sleep and snack times and how my oldest was coping with the attention.
Other people did bring their kids and we didn’t mind. They were all well behaved, which was a relief because it’s not always the case.
At my godmother’s funeral a young girl aged maybe 10, a distant relative who did not know her well, distressed everyone with a keening wail throughout the service.
She simply did not cope, poor little thing, and that came at the expense of other’s people’s mourning, including my godmother’s young granddaughters who had lost not just their Granny but also their guardian and full-time carer.
The child should not have been there, or at least been discretely ushered out.
Critics claim that banning children from funerals, deprives them of a chance to say goodbye to loved ones and stunts their emotional development by shielding them from the reality of life that is death.
But really, how could any child today be shielded from death? It’s everywhere, from the photos on our mantelpiece of dearly departed to the snippets of fatality reports on the news.
In the movies our children consume, not only are killings meted out by Superheroes but death is the major theme of Bambi, The Lion King and Charlotte’s Web.
Before my oldest had ever poked a dead bird with stick he had well and truly caught on to the concept.
“Mummy, why do people die?”
“Because they do, darling, everyone does.
“Even me, one day, when I’m very old.
“Yes, even you.
“Noooo!!! Cue his crying.
So when Dad died, my oldest, just shy of his fifth birthday, didn’t mince words.
“Papa’s dead,’ he informed his smaller brother in a flat voice. “He’s dead. That means he’s not coming back. Not ever.”
It was my turn for tears.
We did not need Papa’s funeral to teach him about death and I do not regret not taking him. I certainly don’t believe it’s done him any harm.
That said, my choices might have been different if my kids were older or if we had lost Dad to a long illness rather than suddenly.
If they had asked to go, they certainly would have. And if it was either my husband or myself in the casket, chances are they would all attend.
If the young shoulders can take it, there’s no doubt that kids at funerals can be very life affirming.
At a neighbours funeral recently, a friend says the deceased’s 13-year-old daughter was the highlight, playing a song, leading the mourners and in doing so becoming a beautiful focal point and affirmation of her mother. She did herself and her mother proud. It can work, but it can’t be forced.
We do plan to give our kids a chance to say their goodbyes.
We’ve found a hill where we want to put Dad’s ashes and it’s there that when the weather is right, and Granny is ready, we’ll have a family picnic to honour and celebrate him. Privately, with care, love and attention. And a cake. He’d like that and I think the kids will too.