Should You Take Your Toddler to a Funeral?

Mother and baby at funeral

Getty Images / Rich Legg / E+

Whether children should go to funerals is a common but important concern of parents, and it depends less on your child's specific age and more on their maturity and your dialog with them. If there's been a death involving someone your toddler knew and loved, you should think about taking your toddler to the funeral. Here are some things to consider when making your decision.

Consider Your Toddler's Behavior

Another important consideration is your toddler's behavior. If your child is able to sit still and quiet for longer periods of time, then they're less likely to cause a disturbance at a funeral. If they are very active or difficult to distract when bored, however, you'll probably want to book a sitter.

First and foremost, you want to be respectful to the family of the deceased. Your own family is likely to be more tolerant of your toddler's naturally rambunctious behavior than a coworker's family.

It may be the case, though, that other children will be in attendance, or that it's expected (culturally or otherwise) that children participate in ceremonies surrounding life and death. A few phone calls to those you know are attending can go a long way in your decision-making process.

Consider the Behavior of Others

Your toddler probably isn't the only one whose behavior you should consider. While funerals can be quiet, solemn affairs, they are, understandably, places where people are filled with overwhelming emotion.

People will be seen crying, including those who may openly weep, yell, collapse, and say things that could be frightening to your toddler. If you know that your toddler reacts with strong empathy to those around them, it might be best to skip the funeral. If you don't know how your toddler might react, it's best to start talking about it right away.

Taking a Toddler to a Funeral

Start talking about death as soon as possible. If you are feeling very emotional and worry about breaking down, give yourself some time and space to grieve before you tackle a discussion.

Don't try to wait until all or most your sadness has passed, however, since it's natural for these things to take time, and you want your toddler to know it's OK to be sad about death and loss. Try to meet your child at their current level of understanding. Relate to other situations if possible, but if not, start fresh.

Explain what death means in the simplest terms. (For example, you can say, "Mommy's cousin has died. That means that she is not alive anymore, and we can't see her again."). Avoid using vague terms (such as passed on, expired, or departed) and be as concrete as possible.

Avoid telling toddlers that the deceased person has gone to sleep or won't ever wake up again.

Sleep is such a fundamental part of your child's life that they might begin to make a connection and be frightened that they may also go to sleep and never wake up, or that you may do the same. After you've discussed what you can of death, it's OK to leave that topic alone and visit it in the future as your toddler has questions.

Don't keep talking about it repeatedly if it seems it's not sinking in, and don't try to evoke a visible response. Toddlers aren't likely to process such a complex situation immediately. Just be aware of opportunities to offer clarity later and keep things simple for now.

Talking About the Ceremony

Other conversations you'll want to have are about the ceremony, itself. Just like you'd discuss a doctor's appointment or visit the fair, you'll want to let them know what's going to happen when they are at the funeral.

Relate to them first about things they understand, like what they'll wear, where the service will be, and who will be there that they know. Be sure to talk about how they'll need to behave and how the people who are there may be crying or upset.

Even though you may have explained how you'd like for them to behave, this is a toddler we're talking about; it's hard to predict what will happen even under the best circumstances.

Be ready to remove your toddler from the service if necessary for the benefit of others involved.

If it's highly important for your personal mental health to participate fully in the funeral, consider having a friend or babysitter attend so that they can take your toddler outside or for a walk if they get bored and rowdy.

Bear in mind the time of the service and have snacks, drinks, and comfort objects on hand. Of course, know where bathrooms are in case of diapering and potty needs.

Leaving a Toddler at Home

First, don't worry. The idea of closure isn't really something your toddler understands. Closure will come to them much later, sometimes years later. It comes through the process of you discussing and explaining things to them as they mature, especially if the person who died was very close to them (like a parent, aunt, or sitter).

Closure also comes from experiencing other deaths and losses, large and small. The death of a pet or a plant, or the loss of a close friend who moves away, will all contribute to their understanding of what it means to grieve.

Open a dialogue with your toddler as soon as you are emotionally capable of doing so. Don't worry about some tears, though. It really is important for your child to see that sadness is part of the process.

Make sure you acknowledge any feelings your toddler might be having. They might not react right away or in ways that you expect.

The most common feeling they will express will be a feeling of simply missing the person who has died and wishing that they could still spend time with them. Keep reinforcing the fact that the person is dead, but do not discourage them from talking about this person in sad, happy, or even angry terms.

If you desire, you can always have a small memorial service with your child alone or even coordinate with others who knew the deceased and have children that didn't attend the funeral. You could take flowers to the grave at a later date, along with a card or picture your child has drawn, or create a new family tradition that centers around honoring and remembering the person who died.

1 Source
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  1. Schonfeld DJ, Demaria T. Supporting the grieving child and family. Pediatrics. 2016;138(3) doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2147

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.