Should My Child Attend A Funeral

Dr. Jerry Grosso and Sam Wasfi, licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, discuss the topic should my child attend a funeral.

So tell me the age of the kids and were they crying when you got the call?

So this is a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old. They were more confused than anything else.

Okay. It’s weird in the mental health profession, kind of like in physical health docs in an ER. They see serious injuries, they see serious illnesses, they see blood every day. In mental health, dealing with people who are depressed, people that experience trauma, and so forth, we hear a lot of stories and they’re typically tragic. People see them on the news but really not notice the emotional impact it has. We get these calls…So share with me a little bit about the call you got. This is kind of a difficult topic for families to talk about.

Absolutely it is. What prompted me to talk about this was that I received a call yesterday from a friend who wanted some feedback, my opinion on the topic. Should his 9 year old and 11 year old attend his brother’s funeral service? He and his mother felt very strong about the kids participating and being part of this commemorative part of grieving while the mother felt very strongly about not having her children participate in this.

So you’re saying that it’s the brother of the father.

Correct.

Unexpected death, and what’d you say, it was a motorcycle accident, correct?

That’s correct?

And so father says, “Hey, for the kids, I want them to be able to attend this.” Mom is saying, “Hey, this is a bad idea to expose kids to loss and grieving.”

Correct. And so the question becomes how do we make a collective family decision on the children’s participation or lack thereof?

Did it seem like a contentious conversation? I mean you’re trying to provide some assistance and guidance. I know it’s not exact, but it’s to help essentially troubleshoot, problem solve for the family, right?

Yeah. So certainly it was beginning to be contentious for the family and I know that it has been contentious for many families. This is a very emotionally charged topic. And so for sure, it can be.

So when you’re saying emotionally charged, I’m guessing, because of all the emotions that people experience with death?

Sure.

I mean when you look at the loss. The kids have their feelings and there’s a concern about that. But family members and this couple, both of them have their feelings that are probably very heightened and may be dysregulated at this point in time given what just took place.

So before we get into this further, for those of you that don’t know us, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso. I’m the clinical director at Nsight Psychology & Addiction in Newport Beach, California. And today I’m with Sam Wasfi. He’s a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist here in Newport Beach. Has a private practice and is a primary therapist at Nsight. He specializes in mood disorders that would include depression, and bipolar. When you work in the mental health field, there’s a lot of intertwining of several issues. So you’re going to share a number of things today that we can look for when we are trying to provide guidance with family members especially dealing with a loss.

Should My Child Attend A Funeral

Yeah, so I sat down and really thought about some of the things that I shared with my friend and I also wanted to share it with the viewer because I think it could be helpful. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but I think it can be helpful for people who are searching for an answer. I came up with four important points to consider when trying to make a decision whether or not your children should participate in the funeral service of a loved one. Number one is to provide information regarding the service. Number two, be ready to answer questions that will arise from such a topic and can the children have a role in this process as well as developing an exit strategy, which I think will be really important to cover.

So, Sam, this can be controversial. I mean, depending on, let’s say someone’s family beliefs, cultural backgrounds, and then just individual thoughts like, “Should kids be a part of all of this emotion?” Especially a difficult topic like this, and you’re talking about areas where there’s complete involvement.

Yes, and this brings up the question of what does the family believe about life, about death, about what happens after death? And this is why I think creating some predictability in terms of what happens during the day of the service. And we know that predictability correlates with experience of safety. And so disclosing to the child, “Tomorrow there’s going to be the funeral service. Here’s what you might expect. Here’s the minister who will be there. This is what the service will entail.” Even if there’s an open casket or a closed casket, what might the child see? What are some of the emotions that will be expressed by others who are attending and normalizing the fact that people will have different emotion? There might be some are not crying, others who are deeply distressed and to begin to talk about what it’s like or what the child thinks it would be like to be part of this.

There’s a lot of information that you just covered in this part. Is this something that is going to be talked about over time? Meaning, are we doing this the night before the services or does it come up a week? Before because you’re touching on a bunch of emotional points, a lot of information for a child to integrate. And I’m thinking whether it’s a child or an adult there’s a lot of stuff there.

Absolutely, and also there’s a lot of projection there. So if a parent has not dealt with their own grievance that they may want to overly protect the child from this. And this is where sometimes parents or caregivers can have very different views on the child’s participation. In the case of my friend, he believed that this was a normal part of life and that the children should participate in this process. Whereas the wife felt like this was going to be emotionally overwhelming and needed to protect the children from those emotions.

Now, I know that you’ve got other points that you’re going to address, but I just wanted to ask a quick question. Is the goal here for resolution when you talk about … It sounds like the wife’s position is more of avoidance. Like, “I want to protect the kids by not exposing them to this,” but the father’s position is, “Hey, I want to expose this to them because this is part of life,” and looking for resolution?

And not necessarily avoidance. It could come from a protective element of not wanting the children to be overwhelmed, which is understandable. But how do we come to a family consensus on how to deal with such a difficult topic and sometimes like you said, do you have a day to discuss this? Do you have a week? It all depends. Sometimes you have a family member with terminal illness, and their pending death is something that the family is aware of. Other times it’s a motorcycle accident. You get a phone call, and you learn about the death of a loved one, and you really have days to make this decision, hopefully collectively. All right.

So we said that the first point was to provide information about the service so that ultimately the child can make an informed decision. If they’ve never been to a service, they don’t know what to expect, they don’t know what to anticipate. To the best of your ability, you would kind of review with them who will be there, what the service will entail. And number two, is to be ready to answer a question, “What is it that the family believes about death and grieving?” And, “What if I get too scared and feel overwhelmed?”

And you’re referring to the kids at this point?

Sure.

Meaning how do I make this an open conversation? So as a parent, let’s say I want to make it comfortable for the kids to say, “Hey, this is becoming overwhelming for me,” or, “I don’t know what to do here. I don’t know how to manage my feelings,” and so forth. Is that what you’re referring to?

Sure, sure. Also, questions about death in itself. I think a lot of children have a genuine curiosity about that. Sometimes they’ll walk into a backyard, and they’ll see a lizard that has died, and they want to touch the lizard, and they want to explore it and talk about it. And it’s the parents’ emotional reaction to the child touching the lizard that sometimes startles the child. And so I think it’s one of those rare opportunities where the family can sit together and say, “What is it that we believe about death and about the afterlife?” If the family believes in an afterlife, and it’s a time when people are emotionally connected, open to have this important conversation. And it doesn’t have to be a morbid, gloomy topic because oftentimes it’s not for children.

Well, I’m glad you said that because the example you just used about the lizard is something that can happen every day. And when you look at that, we have a tendency to use our feelings to make judgments. If we say, “Hey, don’t touch the lizard, and you just need to leave it alone and then we scoop it up and move it away,” you can create different thoughts on the child. Like, “Why is that taboo?” Or, “Why is this a bad thing?” As opposed to, “This is a learning experience.” How do we help the child learn this part of life, understand things, accept things and so forth? So you’re coming from a very different perspective?

Yeah. Yeah. And ultimately, after laying out the event of the day, some of the thoughts about death and the afterlife, the child can make a decision whether they want to participate in the service or not. I know that some people will say, “There isn’t adequate words to describe that experience of being part of this ritual.,” and that’s probably true. That’s why we talk about having an exit strategy.

But before you get to the exit strategy, when you’re talking about, there’re not adequate words to describe that. Would that be the purpose of the participation? That no matter what conversation and again, I think what you’re saying is, is this is not recommended for everybody, but in the event that I decide to have my child participate, or even as an adult, I decide to participate. It’s really to work through feelings that you can’t put words to. Is that what you’re saying?

That’s absolutely true. That’s absolutely true. To go back to reaffirming what the father’s perspective was, that it’s part of experiencing life’s fullness is that there’s an experience of loss, of grief, of valuing love and family because life is temporal. Life is not forever. And so it really opens up the conversation to deeper conversations that the family would otherwise never have.

Okay. And so then you get down and you said there’s an importance to have an exit strategy. I don’t know what you mean by that.

The child makes the decision that they want to participate in the funeral service and they’re there and at some point during the service they feel like, “I don’t really feel very safe. I don’t really feel I want to be here.” That they can voice this to the caregiver and say, “I think I would like to leave now,” and the child knows that they can voice their desire to leave and that either any attendant caregiver would then take them to another place where that’s agreed on.

Okay. So people could look at it and say, “Well, wow, that’s a lot of emotional pressure,” all of this build up, and then the child can’t exit until the day. Can they exit before? Can they say, “Hey, we’re a day out or two days out. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be a part of this.”

Absolutely. And so, Jerry brings up a good point. A lot of times the negative outcome of experiences like this is when we experience intense emotion and the opportunity for escape is not available to us. And so at any point, the child has a change of mind or feels overwhelmed by their emotion and they want to leave, they have access to doing so.

Okay. So the interesting point, I just want to reiterate this, so you’re saying emotional distress can be heightened in areas, not just about what we’re talking about where I don’t feel like I can manage what I’m feeling and I don’t have a way to escape that.

Yes.

And what you’re saying is, “Hey, not only is that valid in life, this is really good here. That is as my emotional distress increases, if I have a way out, knowing how I can manage this, this is going to help me regulate what it is that I feel,” correct?

Sure. And for some children, it may be that the presence of a loving, compassionate caregiver can help soothe them and continue with the service, which is a really great example of managing difficult emotion and life experience and the context of a loving caregiver. That this is a healthy attachment, a good attachment, and that the caregiver can also provide safety if the presence in the funeral service is still overwhelming by removing them altogether.

Okay. So if we look at the whole process, the fact that we’re going down through these four things and the families got this open discussion about it and they’re kind of explaining the process and so forth and allowing the kids to verbalize things that create some emotional stability, strength, comfort and support?

Sure.

So on that day, if my distress, if I’m the child, my distress starts going up. And again, I think this is applicable to any individual at any age that I know I can come to you. I don’t have to run out the door. Is that-

That’s correct. And one of the things that we didn’t talk about is the age of the child that we’re referring to here. I know we started off by saying my friend’s child was children who were both nine and 11. But really this would apply to any child, maybe over the age of five through seven where they’re beginning to understand permanency and impermanency. And the family can begin to discuss this topic of whether or not the children will participate. The last point is really considering whether or not the child can have a role in the service itself. And this can be an integral part of the grieving process. Can they present flowers? Can they be part of the prayer service? And this gives a tangible way of expressing grief and loss and can be a very healing process in itself.

So the way you’ve described it, does this become like almost a therapeutic event? So it’s a tragic event. Loss of a loved one, especially unexpected, either way, it’s very difficult. But rather than this be traumatic, it may start out traumatic, but I can start to work my way through it or help my child to work together or loved one, Whoever the person is, by kind of following the steps. Is that?

Absolutely, and so just to clarify, what I am not saying is I’m not saying that children should always go to funeral services. That children can never be negatively impacted by attending these services, or that parents should always make these decisions independent of the child. What I am saying is that this could be a collective decision-making process that the child is to be informed about what anticipate, what they might expect and for them to make a decision that could be revoked later at any time, but that they could make an informed decision. And that they are to participate in this ritualistic and sometimes necessary process in order to begin grieving the loss of a loved one.

Perfect. Well, again, I want to say thanks, Sam. Again, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso, clinical director, Nsight Psychology and Addiction in Newport Beach, California. If you guys have questions for us, please send it to info@nsightrecovery.com and that’s info@nsight N-S-I-G-H-T recovery.com. If you liked this video, give us a like, if you don’t like it, please give it a don’t like. Let us know what it is. We’re always open to feedback. We’re here to help you guys.

We want to pull the stigma away from mental health, mental illness, the negativity and provide some good information. When you look at emotional health, it’s no different than physical health. There’re things that come up in life that can catch us and we’re trying to help people. One, normalize it because it is normal and be able to get through it. If you do like this video, go ahead and share it with someone too. Again, I’m Dr. Jerry Grosso. This is Sam Wasfi, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Newport Beach, California. And until we see you next time, I hope you guys have a terrific day.

Dr. Jerry Grosso

Dr. Gerald “Jerry” Grosso is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience assisting individuals and families struggling with addiction, depression and trauma. He obtained his Bachelors of Arts degree in Psychology from San Diego State University before enrolling in Chapman University where he acquired a Master of Arts degree in Psychology.  Dr. Grosso continued his education and received a Doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology with a Specialty in treating Chemical Dependency. He holds a professional membership with the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).

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