For his mum’s funeral this week, Jamie (his name has been changed for the purpose of this article), who is six, asked if we could play Janet Jackson singing, “Together Again.” The family were surprised as it wasn’t a song that they would have picked. Jamie explained that it was the song that his mum used to sing as she danced with him and his baby brother. For me describing that picture of a young mum holding her five-month-old and dancing with her little boy spoke, more than anything else that day, of who Jamie’s mum was for him and the heartbreak of her sudden death at 27.
It’s a moment that wouldn’t have happened in the service if Jamie’s voice hadn’t been heard.
At Richmond’s Hope we sometimes say that children are the forgotten mourners. Being included from the beginning is so important for their future mental health. The rules around funerals and the pandemic make this much harder and raise additional questions. How do we ascertain the views of the child or help the family to do so when the service is to be arranged by phone? How do they get to choose whether or not they go to the funeral when the number of attendees becomes another barrier? I reckon it is better to concentrate on what can be done, rather than what can’t.
So this is what Richmond’s Hope would advise:
If possible, ask the family to find out if the children want to go to the funeral. Children tell us that the worst thing is not to be allowed to go, or to be made to attend. They benefit from having control, in a time when they have had very little control over what was happening, and be able to make the choice, in an informed way, for themselves. Parents and carers can be their advocates for the numbers to be upped to include them, if necessary, for they are often principle mourners.
Encourage the family to explain things in an age appropriate way. This means explaining what has happened clearly, leaving room for questions. Always use words like death and died, or children will look for someone who is lost, or may become concerned about going to sleep. Explain what a funeral is and don’t assume knowledge, or an understanding, of words like coffin, or hearse, or hymns. The family might use pictures from the internet as it can help to prepare a child if they’ve not seen the crematorium before, or even the minister, if they don’t already know you.
If limited to a phone call, ask the family to find a quiet moment with the children and tell them about the service and that the minister will be talking about the person who has died. It’s a chance for the children to say what they remember and decide if they want something said on their behalf. Sometimes the children might just want to draw a picture or write something to put in the coffin, if they are able to do that.
If children/young people are not able, or chose not, to go to the funeral, it can be helpful to ask the child/young person if they would like to do something different, at the time of the funeral. Ideas could include things like listening to specific music at that time, lighting a candle or planting a tree in the garden. Again the child/young person’s choice is important in this and they may come up with ideas of their own, or equally they may not want to do anything specific.
Remember that children and young people are resilient but even the youngest child will need time to mourn for the deceased. Most children will do well without a specialist service like Richmond’s Hope. Helping children with grief is simply allowing them to tell their own story about the person who has died and explore the impact on their lives. Remember that playing and talking is an easier combination for a child then sitting face to face in a room. Most importantly it should always be the young person who leads, not us! They will ask the questions and tell the story they need to tell if given the time and space they need.
There is lots more advice on the Richmond’s Hope’s website (including leaflets for families and children) and bereavement support workers in Glasgow and Edinburgh are happy to talk to anyone supporting bereaved families.
The contact details for Richmond’s Hope are:
The website: richmondshope.org.uk
Phone numbers: 0131 661 6818/0141 230 6123