Funerals and Other Customs During the Time of COVID-19
In the best of times, many parents struggle over how to include children and teens in rituals and customs employed at the time of death. With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting ways in which funeral observances can be held this is even more challenging. Choices about gathering sizes are restricted, social distancing is in place, traveling to be with friends and family is limited and unsafe. Decisions about death observances are always personal and often difficult for each family; hopefully, considering the following suggestions will be helpful as you talk to your children and decide on your plans.
You Can Only Do the Best You Can Under Difficult Circumstances
While there may be religious rituals, cultural or family traditions, and wishes of the deceased that are restricted due to COVID-19, there is never one “right” way to support a child during the tender time surrounding the death of someone important to that young person. The way that is best for you and your family in socially ‘normal” times may not be available to you now, but observing the death is still important for children, friends and family of the deceased. Be realistic in making plans– some ideas for including young people are not always possible within the context of your family traditions, family expectations, the circumstances and your energy level. But this is also a time where you can create rituals which can be meaningful to family members and friends- including children. Do what is possible, and with forgiveness, let go of what is not.
Find support for any decisions you might make about including the children in the funeral process. At a time of death, extended family members sometimes have strong feelings about what is proper or appropriate, which may conflict with your desires for your child or teen. Within the context of what is medically safe, develop a comfortable response to criticism, such as “I have to do what is right for my children and myself” and try to find the support of at least one other extended family member for your decisions.
It Is Never Too Late To Say Goodbye
Grieving hearts can benefit at any time from a personalized goodbye ceremony. If you are unable to include your children in an observance that is satisfying, or you have regrets about how the funeral process is unfolding, you can always create a ritual within your family for saying goodbye.
The following are some ways you can support your child or teen before, during and after the death.
You Can Honor the Importance of the Rituals and Customs for Children and Teens
At a time of death, young people can be supported by the traditions, customs, and rituals that are culturally accepted practice. Visiting hours, funeral or memorial services may not be possible now. Younger children may have not previously experienced these rituals, older children may have their own feelings of disappointment or anger about having symbolic and meaningful observances not being available to them. Whether or not they have previous knowledge of funerals, finding ways to incorporate practices that have been done for generations, as well as new traditions created specifically by your family will bring comfort to children and older family and friends. It is important to find a way to observe the loss that will provide connection to other loved ones, opportunities to express feelings, and help take in the mystery and anguish of death. Explore with funeral directors options for recognizing the loss of loved ones during this pandemic.
You Can Include Your Child or Teen in the Planning Of the Funeral, Memorial Service or Ritual
Young people can be easily overlooked as resources during the hectic and stressful days of planning a service, yet the honesty and sincerity they bring can be of enormous help to you. They may have ideas about the songs, poems, pictures, or activities the deceased loved, and they will undoubtedly always remember which ideas of theirs were contributed to the service. If you can be open to them, your children and teens can be wonderful teachers at this time.
You Can Explain To Your Child or Teen What to Expect
When you have determined how this loss will be observed, be sure to explain in specific detail what will happen, and what role they will have during the events you plan. Understanding what to expect can help decrease your child’s anxiety. It is helpful to explain details including how long event will last, where those involved will be, including virtually, what the role of funeral directors and others will be, and how events will unfold. Share with your child or teen that it is okay to cry and show emotions; that it is okay if they do not want to say much; that other people will be saying “I am sorry” and looking sad. It can be a strain when children and teens are expected to be still for long periods – see if they can have a specific responsibility such as greeting people as they join online gatherings, or hold a sign as people drive by a home. They may have ideas, as well, about what they would like to do.
You Can Decide How You Feel About Your Son or Daughter Attending and Explain to Them
If possible, try to spend some time sorting out how you feel about your child or teen attending observances before you speak to them about it. Some parents require their sons or daughters to be present; some give their children or teens a choice; some strongly encourage but do not insist on involvement; others do not feel the child or teen should be present. At The Center for Grieving Children, we always suggest that children and teens be included as much as possible because we have seen how meaningful it can be for young people, and how it helps in the healing process. Yet, you should follow your heart in your decision. When you talk to your son or daughter about it, give them your reasons for wanting them there or accepting that they not be there.
Have A Contingency Plan If Your Child or Teen Wants To Leave a Gathering at Any Time
When there is not an health crisis impacting an entire community, one comfortable alternative for many families is to ask that the children or teens attend, but have a close friend or family member available for the youth at any time, if they so choose. During this time of social distancing, it might involve having that person available to be with the child on a device other than the one used for the gathering, or to have plans to have the child spend arranged, alternating times with family members who are also isolating together. This gives the child or teen a sense of control and can alleviate anxiety they may have as they anticipate the event. Explain that you do not want them to be alone if they leave because it is such a vulnerable time.
Talk To Your Child or Teen about How the Funeral or Memorial Service Was For Them After It Is Over
It is part of the grieving process to have meaningful memories, regrets, or frustrations about the goodbye ritual, and this will be even truer in a time impacted by the pandemic. Asking your son or daughter about their experience creates an opportunity to express such feelings. Healing can occur when a young person can express verbally, in writing or though art, what they will remember and what they wish could have been different.
Many people are uncomfortable talking about death and loss, and consequently, children and teens are not given frequent opportunities to learn the many dimensions of grieving. As parents, we can come to view crisis and loss, both in our families and in the larger community, as “teachable moments”. We can help children and teens learn about grieving and the customs people employ to say goodbye to the people and things they love and have lost. In every teachable moment, there is an opportunity to teach our children:
- That grief is normal, natural, and a healthy response to loss
- That grief is a unique, life-long process for people of every age
- That it is important to find ways to say goodbye to the things and people we love
- That to honor the relationships we have lost is to honor an integral part of who we are as people
- That we all have an inner capacity to heal and the strength to get through difficult times together
Teachable Moments throughout Childhood and Adolescence
- Answer your child’s questions about death, loss, and grief in a matter-of-fact way from the earliest age. Children are naturally curious about death and intuitively know it is part of the life cycle.
- Use holidays, such as Memorial Day, as opportunities to discuss why people have memorials and why they are important. Most holidays are remembrances of some kind and can open a door for all types of learning and sharing about honoring people after they die.
- Honor every goodbye possible in your family: Extended absences, separation, divorce, losing a favorite teacher or friend, moving, or the end of the school year. By acknowledging that it is appropriate to grieve all losses, you teach that grief is a natural and healthy response to important change.
Teachable Moments During and Immediately After a Death or Crisis
- Speak to your son or daughter about what has happened as honestly as possible. Give them the details you know, tell them what you do not know, and be honest when it is too difficult or overwhelming to talk at a certain time.
- Create memorials, rituals and traditions: plant a tree, with a ceremony, in memory of the deceased; dedicate a song at a dance or on the radio for the deceased; have a special candle that reminds every one of the deceased; create a collage of pictures and memories; at holidays make a time for remembering those you have loved and lost; have a family song you sing which can be used at a time of loss: write a special poem or prayer with your children that you can recite during a time of yearning.
- Teach your child how to show they care. People of all ages feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of death, even more so at a time when the entire community and all of the routines a child knows seem unpredictable. Even children often wonder what to do to help others. Gifts of food are often appreciated, as well as cards which your child or teen might want to make for others who are grieving. Explain to your son or daughter that most children and teens do not like to be treated differently after the death, but want to be with friends as they always have, even if interactions are online. Tell them to acknowledge the loss to the griever in a sensitive way, and to be careful not to tease or shame a child who has had a loss.
- Accept without judgement your child or teen’s feelings about the death or crisis even when the tragedy happens to someone your son or daughter did not know well. Young people can be deeply affected by death and crisis in their towns, school communities, churches, and sometimes, the world- particularly when the world around them feels so unpredictable. Often it awakens a sense of vulnerability and the precariousness of life. Allow your son or daughter to talk about the event, express his/her feelings, and offer the reassurances that will help your son or daughter regain a sense of trust in the world.
Source: Supporting Children and Teens through Loss: A Guide for Parents, Helene McGlauflin, Med., LCPC