Explaining funerals to a child

I was asked today for my advice on how to explain about death and cremations to a 6 year old.

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Explaining death to a child is always hard, whether you’re referring to a pet, a person on television or a relative. But to a child, death is death. The meaning of death is something they will learn and experience the older they grow.

I am in no way an expert on this subject; I do however have recent personal experience.

My lovely Granddad passed away last year and my eldest daughter L was in the room with me when I received the phone call. I cannot comment on how anyone else would have reacted, but upon receiving the news, I broke down. I couldn’t control it. It was probably quite scary from her point of view. One minute I was happily putting make up on, the next I’m crying my eyes out crouched on the floor; the newly applied mascara running down my face.

I had to explain to L that her Great-Granddad was so very old and had been poorly for a while, and that he had died. I didn’t use the term “passed away” or “gone to heaven”.  I’m not sure why, and thinking back now, I am not even sure that I explained what dying was. I must have assumed that she would know. I feel awful now typing that, but dealing with your own grief kind of takes over I suppose.

L  had experienced the death of a various pets previously (rabbits mostly), and so was aware that the body had always been buried on the garden.

But with Granddad, there was a funeral  and he was being cremated, not buried. So now I had some more explaining to do.

The only way I could think to explain a funeral was to compare it to a wedding. Everyone in the family would get together at a special place similar to a church to say “goodbye”. There would not be any cake, or dancing, no bridemaids, no photographer. There would be a car though, a black one which would carry the coffin.  Once we had said goodbye and talked about Granddad, his body would be cremated, not buried. I explained that his coffin would pass into a massive oven with fire and be burned until all that was left was ash. Then the ash of Granddad’s body would be put into a jar and given to Nanny to bring home.  I think I said something along the lines of “Great-Granddads body is too big to bury in the garden, and at least if he is in the jar he can always be with us.”

I didn’t find it difficult explaining the processes involved. L  sat and seemed very grown-up all of a sudden, and asked me sensible questions. And I like to think that I gave her the answers she wanted without scaring or lying to her.

I would like to say now that L did not attend the funeral/cremation. She was 8 years old at the time, and in my opinion it would have been too much for her.

We didn’t talk about heaven or God. I didn’t want to make it any more complicated. I am aware that those questions will arise one day. But instead I told her that he would always be with us. Whenever we see sun shining through the clouds, L says that Great Granddad is looking down on us and asks me to take a photo. This is something she has come up with herself. This makes me very happy and proud that she seems to have such a mature outlook on this.

Taken during walk to school along the seafront

They were like two peas in a pod. They laughed together, talked about school, The age gap of 80 years did not seem to matter, they kind of met in the middle, and enjoyed talking to each other.

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So, here is how I believe death, funerals and cremations should be explained to a child:

  • Be honest – Don’t lie or make it out to be something it isn’t. There will come a time when they find out for themselves.
  • Try comparing it to an occasion they can relate to. In my experience it was a wedding.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate the matter with information which is irrelevant to their age.
  • Always answer any question they have. Don’t be afraid to talk to a child. Sometimes, they will knock you off your feet with how their innocence and maturity can help your grief.

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I would point out that I am NOT a childcare expert. I am NOT a counsellor specialising in loss/grief.

I am quite simply a Mum.

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One thought on “Explaining funerals to a child

  1. What do I say?
    Well done to you for raising a subject that too many people do everything to ignore, particularly where children are concerned.
    I learnt about death the hard way aged seven, given the circumstances my parents did the best they could – it’s only as I get much older that I really have begun to understand what they went through as well as dealing with me (sorry, I should explain the death was my older brother and only sibling in a road accident.)
    Hopefully, parents (and other relatives of children) will read this and remember it when or if the time comes.

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