The Innocent Grief of Children
I have spent a lot of time thinking about grief and children over my years as a funeral celebrant. I have to say when I first started out I assumed like many, that funerals were no place for children. That somehow taking your child to a funeral or seeing a person who has passed away would somehow scar your child for life.
However, maybe it’s because I am older now or maybe I have gained some wisdom and perspective in my job, but my opinion these days couldn’t be further from my original viewpoint, especially after a very special funeral this last week.
Craig and I had the privilege of putting together a service for a young woman who had passed away in her thirties. This beautiful young woman had touched so many lives, including a number of children all under the age of about eight. The woman was severely disabled but this hadn’t stopped her from leaving her loving mark on everyone who knew her.
The funeral was to have an open casket and on this point the family were absolutely firm. I immediately started to worry about the children, knowing there were to be a number of little's there. What would they make of this? Would they be okay; how would they process what they saw? But, what happened was absolutely beautiful and brought me to tears, not exactly my most professional moment, but it was so touching.
As the family sat listening to the service, out of the corner of my eye I could see the little ones coming up and poking their heads over the coffin and greeting their friend just like they had when she was alive. Touching her face, telling her they loved her and at the end, and the reason for my tears, a little girl in the arms of her Dad leaning in kissed her Auntie on the head before waving goodbye and blowing kisses. Before we finished the service we invited all the children forward and they drew in marker pens all over the casket and stuck stickers of birds and butterflies on it, it was absolutely beautiful. Needless to say it floored both of us emotionally.
These little souls taught us both so much about grief that day. For the first time in a long time, it felt like the natural way of things, that death, like life was inevitable and not to be feared. We see so much hurt, sadness, anger and misery in our work, of course we do, because death always seems unfair. Whether it’s because your loved one is taken too early, through illness, or unexpectedly, it feels to us adults like the end of our world. We can’t fathom going on without our loved one. And picking up the pieces after someone you love has passed away is one of the most painful things you can go through. But these little children hadn’t been taught how we grieve as adults, they were yet to understand the utter loss you feel. They just accepted the loss, yes with tears in their eyes for some, but mostly with great big beaming smiles and love in their hearts for their dearly departed Auntie, safe in the knowledge that death was not the end merely the beginning of another journey.
At the graveside the children were given glitter, hearts and sparkles and flowers to throw into the grave instead of earth. We had balloons that went ‘pop’ and showered the grave and the people around with glitter of every colour. As we watched, each child peered into the hole in the ground, they didn’t see a coffin like we did, instead they saw their Auntie in a beautiful white casket, covered in teddies and glitter bombs in a rainbow of colour and they all smiled. I heard one little girl say “Auntie would have liked what we did” and she was right, she would have loved it, but more because instead of tears there was laughter and smiles. This would be their last memory of their Auntie, joyful and full of colour, a happy memory not a sad one.
I think as adults we often forget that although we have much to teach our children, there is a great deal they can teach us. We learned so much from these little people that day and we are truly grateful for it. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years go by as a Funeral Celebrant, there is always something knew to learn on our journey.
I know in the future if an adult asks me the inevitable question “Should I let my child come to the funeral” or “Should I let my child see their loved one after they have passed?” my answer will be “ask them, see if they want to.” Words I confess I will be stealing from two of the best funeral directors in the business, Kerrie & Aaron Burkin from Beaudesert Funerals. When I have asked for their advice in the past about children attending funerals, they have always told us; they advocate talking openly with children and letting them make up their own minds.
Children are more resilient than I think we give them credit for. There will be occasions where it is perhaps not suitable or appropriate for children but mostly I think it’s extremely healthy for children to attend funerals or viewings, but be guided by your funeral director. I know we want to protect our children as parents but I think we are doing the little people a disservice, they need to say goodbye too, and it turns out they are actually better at it than we are!