Explaining death and funerals to toddlers
June 4, 2009 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Should my 18-month old niece attend my grandmother's funeral?

So, it looks like my grandmother is going to die quite soon. This isn't a surprise as she has been in a nursing home and rather unwell for some time.

Of course, this is a challenging emotional time for me and my family, but particularly for my sister who has to decide whether her 18-month old daughter should attend the funeral.

My perspective on it is that I remember being excluded from my grandfather's burial and resenting it. But I was significantly older, 8 years old I'd guess.

So my view is that it would be great if my niece could attend the funeral and learn to see death as something natural, integrate it into her consciousness as a sad thing but one that is inevitable in the continuum of life.

My questions are:

1. How might my sister best explain death to her daughter? At 18 months she has limited vocabulary and comprehension so we're worried that using phrases like "nanny has gone away" might upset her because daddy often has to "go away" on business.

2. Once the death is explained, should my niece attend the funeral or will it be too upsetting.

Other things you might need to know: my sister is not religious and is not bringing up her daughter in a religion, although there is some Buddhist influence; my niece is being raised according to the principles of the Continuum Concept (I'm not really familiar with this myself but thought I should put it out there); both my sister and I were raised in a Christian household but don't want to pass on that kind of framing/mentality around death/afterlife to the little one.

Sorry this question isn't more articulate; I'm tired and not thinking straight. But in any case, I hope it is clear that I'm just trying to find some different perspectives on how best to deal with this situation for the best outcome for my niece.
posted by Lleyam to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I was four or so when my great-grandparents passed - I stayed with a sitter during the funeral, and have no problem with that. I think it was the sensible choice - I wouldn't have understood what was going on, anyway.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:00 PM on June 4, 2009

At 18 months, I think it's highly unlikely that she will remember the funeral at all when she is older. If it were me, I would decide based more upon her expected behavior at the service than any concern that the event would return to haunt her later. If she becomes fussy easily, I would be concerned that she might disrupt the service. If you think she would behave appropriately (for an 18 month old, of course) it would probably brighten a lot of people's day to have a vivacious youngster around after the service.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:02 PM on June 4, 2009 [12 favorites]

I think the rule of thumb for funerals is this: Will [proposed course of action] make things easier or harder for the people who are having a really tough time that day? That applies to anything, I think, from what you wear to who goes.
posted by Methylviolet at 3:07 PM on June 4, 2009 [8 favorites]

I'm not around little kids often enough to have a good grasp of whether or not an 18-month-old is probably "big" enough to deal with a funeral but my general feeling is that if she's capable of being reasonably calm and quiet for the duration of the service, and won't be miserably fussy during any gatherings afterward, that sure--she should be there. I guess it just depends on the child. FWIW, if she's "big" enough to know and possibly have memories of Nanny then she'd probably appreciate having been at her funeral.
posted by Neofelis at 3:12 PM on June 4, 2009

I would think an 18 month old might struggle being at a funeral, not because of anything to do with death, but because it's a long time for someone so young to "behave" in a solemn environment. In my mind, that's an issue because it could interfere with your sister's opportunity to mourn during the funeral if she has to focus on her child. I don't think the experience of the funeral will penetrate much, if at all, for an 18 month old, but it can be important for adults to fully concentrate and/or participate in the rituals that make up a funeral. I suggest basing the decision on what's best for your sister's grieving process.
posted by katemcd at 3:15 PM on June 4, 2009

She won't remember any of it. The way the brain develops, almost all memories created before then are lost.
posted by delmoi at 3:16 PM on June 4, 2009

Sorry, I mean before age three or so.
posted by delmoi at 3:17 PM on June 4, 2009

1. How might my sister best explain death to her daughter? At 18 months she has limited vocabulary and comprehension so we're worried that using phrases like "nanny has gone away" might upset her because daddy often has to "go away" on business.

We've drawn comparisons with flowers for the funerals my now two and a half year old daughter has gone to (three great grandmothers and a friend's sister.) She was between 9 months and a year and half for them.

it would probably brighten a lot of people's day to have a vivacious youngster around after the service.

This. Seriously, young children can, assuming they aren't tearing around the solemn bits like hellions, be a great comfort to mourners; my daughter, and her cousins, brought her great-grandfather great comfort when he had to say goodbye to his wife of 60-odd years.
posted by rodgerd at 3:29 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

8 years old is a long way away from 18 months old. The situations really aren't comparable.

Here's a different take: what are your grandmother's wishes?
posted by jabberjaw at 3:32 PM on June 4, 2009

I'm sorry that your family is going through this. In addition to the other good advice here, keep in mind that seeing other people mourn may upset your niece. When my daughter was that age, seeing anyone cry (especially family) upset her terribly.

YMMV, of course, and my condolences to your family.
posted by Space Kitty at 3:34 PM on June 4, 2009

Funerals are places like planes and restaurants where 18 month old children ought not be.

Hire a babytsitter.
posted by dfriedman at 3:47 PM on June 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

Of course, it depends on the child, but as someone who takes her nearly three year old as many places as I can, I don't think she should go to the funeral, not because it would be hard on her per-se but rather because I think your sister might be so focused on caring for her daughter that she can't participate in the service as much as she might want to.
posted by anastasiav at 3:48 PM on June 4, 2009

I went to my grandmother's funeral last year. My niece was was a bit older than 18 months and was pretty nonchalant (I'm not sure how it was explained to her what was going on). She was also exceptionally quiet and well-behaved and everyone loved having her around. It was definitely the right decision to bring her along.

If your niece is likely to be the same and if a parent or someone else is happy to take her outside if she becomes disruptive, then sure. If neither of these things, then probably go with a sitter. 18 months is nothing like 8 years. If she remembers anything (and that's highly unlikely) it probably wouldn't be anything more than a fuzzy snapshot of one moment in the day.
posted by K.P. at 4:24 PM on June 4, 2009

I also think your sister should hire a babysitter, especially if the service is going to be long. As others have said, your sister may not be able to get the closure she needs from the service while attending to her toddler, your niece may become upset because those around her are upset, and it's just difficult for kids to sit still and be quiet for longish periods.

If there is going to be any kind of gathering following the ceremony, the babysitter can take your niece to the proper location or your sister can pick her up. This way she can be seen by others and perhaps brighten an otherwise solemn occasion, but your sister won't have to worry as much about your niece sitting still, being quiet, etc.
posted by Aleen at 4:31 PM on June 4, 2009

I was a little over 18 months when my grandfather passed and 2 years when his wife, my grandmother passed. I don't recall much about my grandfather's funeral, but I remember my parents explaining that grandma had died and that meant that she was going to a better place (or whatever your personal family beliefs might be) and that she wasn't coming back but someday I would get to meet up with her again. That seemed to satisfy me, and I only remember asking once if they were sure she was never coming back. FWIW, the only memory I have of the funeral is the blue coverings on the folding chairs at the graveside.

When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, my younger cousins were 5, 2, & 4mos. The big concern then was keeping them entertained so that no one was bothered during the service. One incredibly sweet moment came when either the 5 or 2 year old (I can't recall which now) whispered during a quiet moment "Dad?...I miss Grandma." It's true, having the little ones around made things much more lighthearted for everyone.
posted by messylissa at 4:32 PM on June 4, 2009

As the father of two young children:

A) She won't be able to understand what's going on at all.

B) She won't remember it later anyway.

So, decide based on whether she will lighten the darkness of the funeral for your family, or be trouble to take care of and control during a difficult time.
posted by zachawry at 4:42 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't do it for her benefit -- 18 months is just too young for her to grasp what's going on in any meaningful way. (There's a big different between 18 months and three or four years old, let alone eight years old.)

If her temperment right now permits it, her presence could bring the adults some joy and affirmation. If she'd be too wiggly for the service, perhaps someone could bring her to the open house/whatever y'all do afterwards.

It's sad to say goodbye to a grandparent, but the funeral of someone who lived a long life and had been ill is often less marked by the sort of displays of grief that would confuse and upset a small child.
posted by desuetude at 4:56 PM on June 4, 2009

My husband's brother passed away (suddenly and violently) when my daughter was 23 months old. We took her to the funeral, and one of my husband's teenaged cousins volunteered to watch her during the funeral. It was a very good solution. The cousin was ready to take her out of the funeral if needed, and my husband and I were able to grieve without also trying to watch her.

Her presence was a great comfort to my mother-in-law, particularly during the burial and after the funeral. She was pretty well behaved, but it wasn't a very long service. The key was having someone who as less affected by the death watching the child.

My husband, mother-in-law, and brothers-in-law were terribly distraught at the death. It was a very emotional service. This didn't seem to negatively affect my daughter, but she did seem to understand that something important and solemn was occurring. Once we went to bury the body, she enjoyed being outside, looking at the flowers and knicknacks on the graves, and having the tombstones read to her. She is 6 now, and does not remember the funeral.

Funerals are places like planes and restaurants where 18 month old children ought not be.
This is nonsense in every way.

posted by jeoc at 5:25 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

She won't remember the funeral, but having children around is usually very helpful for the rest of the family during this time.
posted by cmfletcher at 7:36 PM on June 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's a cultural/family thing.
In contrast to several of the above posters, I just assumed you would have children as much as you would have every other family member at a funeral, and was expecting that the question must involve some kind of exceptional circumstances that might dictate otherwise - before I recalled that that is just MY family norms.

At a family gathering like a funeral, it is usually really appreciated that there be babies and small children (as long as they aren't loud or distressed) - it might sound corny, but it kinda emphasises the whole 'circle of life' thing. Your grandmother might be gone, but her, and her family continue in her grand & great-grand-children.

Being from a close-knit, large extended family, I myself probably went to a funeral every year or two in my childhood.

She won't understand death like an adult, but she doesn't need too. Try talking to a 2 year old and see if they really understand what 'sleep' is at that age (it's the time where they're not aware of anything, or sometimes dreams, and where adults play a funny game where they lie down with their eyes closed).
What she will get, is familiarity with the process, and understanding by context. She's too young to actually be distressed by the death, she'd only be distressed by adults being upset - and you can prepare her for that.
If she goes to another funeral within a couple of years, she'll probably remember a bit of 'how it should go' (being quiet etc), and will understand a bit more of what it means.
Being from a background like this, Death is not a sudden, terrifying realisation (as some friends related their experience to me, having encountered it MUCH later), but an understanding that slowly grows over time.

For prepatory explanation:
Don't use 'went away', use 'died'. Yes, she won't understand now, but small children pick words up via context.
Make sure she understands that your grandmother isn't asleep, she died, and that this is the last time we will see her, so some people will be sad.
Especially the last bit - explain that some people/adults will be sad, and that she can give (appropriate/selected) grown-ups a hug if she wants, or whatever action you feel is appropriate.
I think that is approximately what an 18 month old can handle.

Keep in mind the length of a service, but actually, an 18mth old is usually more placid and less likely to get bored in that situation than say, a 3 year old. Being held by adults would usually be fine - keep in mind your own neice's individual variation.
posted by Elysum at 8:16 PM on June 4, 2009

A friend took her 9 month old to her grandmother's funeral. Apparently having the little one there helped brighten the proceedings somewhat, especially for the older people.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:20 PM on June 4, 2009

Response by poster: On a very quick scan through (just about leave here to go be with my family) I've marked Elysum as best answer because that is the one that resonates with us most.

We certainly have always assumed my niece would be part of the funeral because, like you say, it is a family thing and she's totally part of the family. I think it is also a very valid point that she can brighten an otherwise dark event.

I think our concerns were mainly over whether she would be upset by the funeral and seeing people sad; however, I think the solution is having her father there to take her outside in the event that's needed.

Thanks for all the other answers, too. They have given me some food for thought and I'll be discussing it with my sister over the next few days. Unfortunately, we won't be able to check our grandmother's wishes at this time.
posted by Lleyam at 12:03 AM on June 5, 2009

If she brings her someone needs to be ready to take her out of the service if she starts to behave inappropriately or if your sister gets so upset that it starts to scare her. That means that someone would have to miss the service.

Also, is you sister going to be able to grieve if she's worried about her child being there/not being there?

I wouldn't explain anything at that age. Way too young for even a basic concept of death.
posted by kathrineg at 6:32 AM on June 5, 2009

Sorry, I didn't preview. I think you will make the right decision and I am very sorry for your loss.
posted by kathrineg at 6:37 AM on June 5, 2009

It so totally depends on the child. My daughter at 18 months would've been the perfect little angel at a funeral. My son at 18 months would have to be removed, probably because he wanted to play 'cars' on the casket, and removing him would be akin to carrying the Tasmanian Devil out.

Remember that funerals are for the living, not for the dead. The question becomes, would the living benefit from having the child there. In my family, it would've been yes for my daughter and no for my son.
posted by plinth at 6:49 AM on June 5, 2009

Funerals are not horrible experiences. There are a lot of people there saying loving things. If a child can behave for the duration, they should be part of it, as they would for any family event. If there is an open casket, it requires explaining things in accordance with your religious beliefs. Many Americans are very squeamish about death. It's natural, and dealing with it is a good thing to learn.

You can always contact ColdChef. He is a wonderful resource for death questions. I contacted him for advice when my Mom died, and he was really helpful.
posted by theora55 at 8:09 AM on June 5, 2009

If you're reasonably assured this child won't be a terror or disruptive, then I suggest bringing the child along. I speak from direct experience with funerals in my immediate family. At a sibling's funeral, my cousin's infant let out a squawk at an interesting point in the otherwise dismal and depressing ceremony, adding a moment of levity that was much needed and appreciated. At a parent's funeral, my best friend brought her daughter and it lifted my spirits tremendously as my parent had always wanted to meet her daughter, but it never came to pass. She was well behaved and her attempts to walk and be social were a perfect distraction from what otherwise would have been a terribly sad afternoon.

Lastly, funerals are unique opportunities to be a teaching point for your child. A chance to share your values, your rituals, and your spiritual beliefs. Never mind the child's age. The fact that you're inclusive, and share equally in a life experience, is very important. Your child will most likely never remember the funeral, but in the future, when you refer back to it and this child knows they were included, it will be a nice feeling despite the sad nature of the event.
posted by kuppajava at 9:38 AM on June 5, 2009

My son was about 18 months old when my grandfather died. We left him home with my father-in-law babysitting. He was able to spend time with family as they visited over the next day or two. I think we made the right decision.
posted by jrishel at 10:16 AM on June 5, 2009

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