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Should Children Visit the Dying, Attend a Funeral or Be Sent Away?

Most fatally ill people are hospitalized. In the past, hospitals didn’t always extend visiting privileges to children. But this has changed as hospital staffs recognize the value that can be derived from having children visit.

Whether or not a particular child should visit someone who is dying depends on the child, the patient, and the situation. A child who is old enough to understand what is happening probably should be permitted to visit someone who has played an important role in her life, providing that both she and the dying person wish it.

Under the right circumstances, contact with the dying can be useful to a youngster. It may diminish the mystery of death and help her develop more realistic ways of coping. It can open avenues of communication, reducing the loneliness often felt by both the living and the dying. The opportunity to bring a moment of happiness to a dying individual might help a child feel useful and less helpless.

If a child is to visit someone who is dying, she needs to be thoroughly prepared for what she will hear and see. The condition and appearance of the patient should be described, and any sickroom equipment she will see should be explained in advance. Also, it may be wise to remind her that although she is visiting someone who is dying, most hospital patients get well.

If visits are not feasible, telephone calls may be a handy substitute. The sound of a child’s voice could be a good medicine for a hospitalized relative, providing the child wishes to call and the patient is well enough to receive it.

Under no circumstances should a child be coerced or made to feel guilty if she chooses not to call or visit the dying or if her contacts are brief.

Should Children Attend Funerals?

Funerals serve a valuable function. Every society has some form of ceremony to help the living acknowledge, accept and cope with the loss of a loved one. Whether or not a particular child should be included again depends on the child and the situation. If the child is old enough to understand and wants to participate, being included may help her accept the reality of the death while in the supportive company of family and friends.

If a child is to attend a funeral, she should be prepared for what she will hear and see before, during, and after the services. She should be aware that on such a sad occasion people will be expressing their bereavement in various ways and that some will be crying. If possible, someone who is calm and can give serious consideration and answers to questions she may ask should accompany the child. If she prefers not to attend the funeral, she must not be coerced or made to feel guilty.

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Sending Children Away & a Child’s Mourning

The loss or impending loss of a close family member taxes our emotional and physical reserves to the extreme, and it becomes difficult to meet everyday responsibilities. If is even more difficult to care for youngsters, and sometimes we are tempted to send our children to visit relatives or friends until we can “pull ourselves together”. Keeping children at a distance may also be a way to avoid talking to them about the death.

Careful consideration should be given before children are sent away, for this is when they most need the comfort of familiar surroundings and close contact with family members. They need time to adjust to the loss and, if feasible, should be prepared in advance of the death. Even young children who do not understand the full implications of death are aware that something serious is going on. Sending them away may increase their fears about separation from their loved ones. Having familiar and caring people nearby before and after the death can reduce fear of abandonment or other stresses children may experience.

On the other hand, we do not want to keep our children under lock and key as a way of dealing with our own anxieties and needs. Our children should be given permission to play with friends or visit relatives if they wish to.

Children Also Mourn

Mourning is the recognition of a deeply felt loss and a process we all must go through before we are able to pick up the pieces and go on living fully and normally again. Mourning heals. By being open with our sorrow and tears, we show our children that it is all right to feel sad and to cry. The expression of grief should never be equated with weakness. Our sons as well as our daughters should be allowed to shed their tears and express their feelings if and when they need to.

A child may show little immediate grief, and we may think she is unaffected by the loss. Some mental health experts believe that children are not mature enough to work through a deeply felt loss until they are adolescents. Because of this, they say, children are apt to express their sadness on and off over a long period of time and often at unexpected moments. Other family members may find it painful to have old wounds probed again and again, but children need patience, understanding, and support to complete their “grief work”.

Should Children Visit the Dying, Attend a Funeral or Be Sent Away?


J.W. Worden, Ph.D.

J. William Worden, PhD, ABPP is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and holds academic appointments at Harvard Medical School and the Rosemead Graduate School of Psychology in California. He is also co-principal investigator for Harvard's Child Bereavement Study, based at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of Personal Death Awareness; Children & Grief: When a Parent Dies; and is co-author of Helping Cancer Patients Cope. His book Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, now in its fourth edition, has been translated into 12 languages and is widely used around the world as the standard reference on the subject.

APA Reference
Worden, J. (2020). Should Children Visit the Dying, Attend a Funeral or Be Sent Away?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/should-children-visit-the-dying-attend-a-funeral-or-be-sent-away/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Apr 2020 (Originally: 27 Apr 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Apr 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.