Youth & Funerals | Hartsell Funeral Home | Albemarle NC funeral home and crematory

Youth & Funerals

The death of a loved one is a painful, and often overwhelming, experience at any age.  Amidst coping with your own grief, you may be faced with talking to your child about death and dying, and might find that you struggle with the question, "Should my child attend the funeral?"  As a parent or caregiver, you may worry that your child is too young to care about, or understand, what happens during a funeral, or why we have them.  It is important to understand that your child will feel the death of a loved one intensely, and that he or she may feel forgotten if left out of such an important family event.  Give them the opportunity to attend the funeral and receive the comfort and support that connects friends and family.  Saying goodbye to a loved one who died is never easy, but experts agree that children should be given the choice to participate in the memorialization process in ways that feel meaningful and important to them.

Having the Talk

Your child's reaction to death and the funeral experience will vary depending on age, the nature of the relationship with the deceased, and his or her maturity level and ability to manage complex emotions.  Sooner is often better when telling your child about the death of a loved one.  Children will likely remember how they were told, so take into account how and when to begin the conversation, depending on your child's demeanor.  For example, maybe having the conversation in the daytime, in a familiar place, would give your child the appropriate time and space to process the information.  Although it may feel uncomfortable at first, the more open and honest you are about these natural life events, the more normalized and less scary these experiences become.

Infants and Toddlers

Do not underestimate the ability of infants and toddlers to feel a loss. Although they might still not have the ability to understand what’s going on, they can comprehend loss through the absence of someone they’ve gotten used to spending intimate times with, through an interruption to their usual routine, and through the stress and grief they sense from their parents and the people around them. To help a child at this age cope with this situation, double your efforts in cuddling and holding them — this helps give a feeling of security and love despite the absence of someone.

Younger Children

Children at this age might have difficulties differentiating reality from fantasy, and even more so, the permanence of death. You might feel that using euphemisms to explain the situation to your child may be helpful, but that is not the case. Using terms such as “gone away,” “sleeping,” "passed away," or “lost” might confuse your young child and could give them fears or negative thoughts. For example, if a young child is told that a deceased loved one has “gone away,” it might make him/her feel abandoned or rejected. A young child might also think that it’s probably his/her fault. If you tell them that the person in the casket is only “sleeping,” they might have fears about not waking up again when they sleep at night. When talking to your child about the death of a loved one, it is best to be honest and use simple and direct words that they can understand. Simply explain that when someone dies, their body has stopped working, and will not start working again. Clarify that a person who has died can no lover breathe, think or talk, nor feel pain, fear, cold, etc.

Older Children

At this stage, children are more likely to understand abstract concepts such as death. They are also at a point when they have more knowledge about how the body works, so be prepared with specific questions they might have. It is very important that your answers are always factual and specific. They might also be more vulnerable and insecure at this time because, aside from the death of a loved one, they are also going through a lot of changes — so give them sufficient opportunities to have conversations with you so they can express their feelings of pain and grief. Explain that you will be having a funeral just for your loved one, and that everyone will be together to share memories, express how much the person was loved and to say a very special goodbye. With burial, explain that, at the end of the funeral, the casket will be placed in a special car, called a hearse, and taken to the cemetery.  There will be a deep hole called a grave and that the casket will be lowered into the grave and covered with dirt. Tell them a grave marker will be placed, so he or she will have a special place to come and visit and remember their loved one.  With cremation, tell your child the body is placed in a special box and taken to a place called a crematory. Inside the crematory, it gets very, very hot, which changes the person's body into cremated remains that look like gray sand. It doesn't hurt because a person who has died can't feel pain. Avoid words like "fire" or "burn." These are placed in a special container called an urn.  Discuss how your family or the family of the deceased may keep the urn in a meaningful place, bury the urn in a cemetery, or scatter the cremated remains outdoors in a special place. 


Because of their growing independence, teenagers usually feel the need to keep their feelings of grief to themselves to show the people around them that they’re grown up and can control how they feel. But because this is most often not the case, they are more likely to engage in high-risk behavior because they are unable to properly express their feelings, especially after the death of a loved one. Although they might feel more comfortable talking to their peers and friends, do not feel disappointed. If anything, this will help them open up their feelings and will make way for healing. This doesn’t mean that you no longer talk to them. Create opportunities where you can talk about the loss, listen to their concerns, empathize with them, and assure them that you are there to help them cope.  As appropriate, incorporate your family traditions, religious/spiritual customs and cultural beliefs into your discussion. Ask if he or she would like to participate.  Consider addressing any of your loved one's traditions, beliefs and customs that might be new, different or unfamiliar.

Youth Involvement in Memorialization

Simply attending the funeral will help your child begin processing his or her grief. But whenever possible, consider including youth of all ages in the planning of the funeral/memorial service to help them feel connected and involved.  Participation is their decision and he or she can change their mind about how much they want to be involved.  Consider asking your funeral director or clergy for suggestions on youth involvement or incorporate some of the following activities:

 Prior to the Funeral:

Draw a picture or write a letter to place in the casket or beside the urn.

Select special photographs or items, and help arrange a picture board, video tribute or memorial table; share special stories and memories during the activity.

Older children may want to help with arrangements, such as selecting a casket or an urn, or the readings and music for the service.

During the Visitation:

Greet the guests, hand out memorial folders or direct people to the registration book.

Participate in the final closing of the casket. 

During the Ceremony:

Start the ceremony by placing a flower on the casket or in front of a memorial portrait or urn.

Share a poem, reading or reflection; sing a song or play an instrument.

Serve as a pallbearer or casket escort.

Participate in religious customs.

After the Ceremony:

Distribute flowers to family and friends gathered at the cemetery.

Place a memento at the graveside, such as a plant or stuffed animal.

Share special memories over your loved one's favorite meal or at their favorite restaurant.

*When youth choose NOT to attend a funeral, let him or her know what will be happening instead, such as staying with a friend or family member.

Preparing to Attend the Funeral

Explain the order of the day, including time and locations.

Explain who and what he or she may see and when. If your loved one is present in a casket, your child should decide how close he or she would like to get to the casket, how long they want to stay in the room, and whether he or she wants to view or touch your loved one. If your child chooses to view, accompany him or her to the casket. Consider scheduling a private viewing prior to the visitation or service. Assure you child early and often that your loved one can no longer feel cold, hurt or fear. Explain that the deceased will have his or her eyes closed and how it may look like they are sleeping. Prepare your child for visible differences if there are scars or swelling. Describe what your loved one is wearing and how the legs and feet are in the closed part of the casket. Let your child know that touching is okay, but the deceased's body will feel cool to the touch. 

Talk about emotions and how people might be feeling, such as crying or even laughing as they share a favorite memory. Let your child know that people grieve differently, and that it is completely normal for emotions to change throughout the day.

Point out the personal touches that honor your loved one. Are mementos on display? Do they see the loved one's favorite color? 

Give youth choices and control. Make certain your child feels empowered throughout the day, and support his or her decisions. Don't force a hug or handshake. Avoid guilting him or her into participating. Continue to allow your child to make decisions after the funeral. Did your loved one have a cherished possession that your child may keep as a memento? Is a sleepover with friends or family an option?

Normalize the experience. Remind your child that crying is okay for both children and adults. Tell them "I'm glad we're here together to say our special goodbyes. It's very important, and it will help us feel better."

Encourage questions. Even if you don't know they answer, say "Let's find someone who night be able to answer it for us" or "It's hard for me to answer that right now. Can we please talk about that at a different time soon?"

*Continue to connect.  Offer comfort love and support in the days, weeks and months following a funeral. Encourage questions, ask how he or she is feeling, and what might bring him or her comfort.  Address any previous questions you may not have been able (or ready) to answer. Invite your child to share suggestion for honoring the memory of your loved one and set aside times on holidays to share memories. Continue old traditions or begin new ones. You understand your child's unique needs best. This content is intended to complement, but not substitute, the care and opinions of grief experts. Please seek professional advice if you have any concerns.

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