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What Age Should a Child Go to a Wake or Funeral?

by Gail Sessoms

Children need help navigating grief. Wakes and funerals are rituals people perform in response to death, and for most people, the rituals are integral to the grieving process. The age of the child is important in making the decision about attendance at wakes and funerals. However, other considerations about the child and the circumstances of the death are of equal importance.

Children and Grief

Decades ago, it was the norm for adults to protect children from death’s emotional ramifications, according to a 2010 article at Psychologytoday.com. While this approach might work for very young children, it ignores the emotional needs of older children. Vicky Ott, executive director of a Cincinnati grief center, says that in spite of that protection, children were “invisible grievers.” Counseling experts now encourage caregivers to allow children to share in the grieving process and, when appropriate, attend wakes, funerals and other commemorative events.

The Function of Rituals

Funerals meet the same needs for many children as for adults, according to the PsychologyToday.com article. In a child-bereavement study, interviews were conducted with 125 children, ages 6 to 17, who had lost a parent to death and attended that parent’s funeral. The children reported that attending the funerals allowed them to honor their parents and say goodbye to them. Children who attend community events after tragic events can use the occasion as an emotional outlet, but children should never be forced to participate in the events.

Very Young Children

Infants and children up to 4 years of age might be unable to withstand the physical and emotional strain of the events, according to an article for the New York University Child Study Center. Children age 3 and younger don’t fully understand death and might be scared or confused by the events. A young child’s short attention span can make the event uncomfortable for him and his family. Families might choose to leave young children with caretakers while they attend services or during the services, if the child attends.

Older Children

The decision to take a child to a wake or funeral depends on the child and how intimately the death has affected the child. Explain to the child what takes place at wakes and funerals. Help her to make a decision that is best for her, understanding that attendance can add to the trauma for some children while others might later regret the decision not to attend. Decide in advance if you will allow your child to view the body. Reassure the child that a decision not to attend does not mean she doesn’t care about or love the person. Remind her that there are many ways to say goodbye.

Other Options

A younger child can place flowers at the grave site after services are concluded or provide a drawing or poem to be placed in the casket. Children can attend the funeral and not the burial or wake. Your older child can attend the wake for an hour and have dinner with family or friends where she is free to talk about her feelings. A special children’s memorial service can allow children of all ages to remember the deceased and say goodbye in a controlled environment. Parents might choose to help children honor people who died in community tragedies by sending cards or donations to related causes instead of attending community vigils.

About the Author

Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.

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