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Particularly for Parents

Needs of Grieving Children: Inclusion

from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent

by Donna Schuurman

When your parent died, were you included in discussions and decisions around a memorial service, funeral, or burial arrangements? The funeral industry has come a long way in advising and equipping parents to include their children and offer them choices as to how they'd like to participate. But this is a relatively young concept, and many children and teens are kept completely in the dark in the days following their parent's death. A lot of discussions in our adolescent groups at The Dougy Center revolve around their frustration and anger at being excluded from decisions and discussions. It feels devaluing, they say, like we didn't matter enough to have a say. Among the common questions we receive from callers to our "Information and Referral Phone Line" at the center are those revolving around children's involvement in funerals. Should children attend or not? Should they see "the body"? In every case, the advice we give is to allow the child or teen informed choice. If they have accurate, clear information, and are permitted to make their own choice, they fare better than those children or teens who are forced into decisions over which they have no say or control. We should not assume we know what is best for a child, or how he or she is processing the death. The following example illustrates good handling of this issue and the power of choice:

A woman's ex-husband and their two young sons were killed in a car accident, leaving one surviving child, seven-year-old Shanna. Shanna wanted to see her brothers and father before they were cremated, and her mother agonized over what to do, enlisting the advice of friends and professionals. The recommendations were about 60/40, with most people suggesting the lingering memory of them in caskets would not be a good thing for Shanna. Everyone had an opinion. Her mother received the wise advice to talk to Shanna about it. To explain her concerns and fear that Shanna might have a bad memory after seeing them, rather than remembering them alive, laughing and playing. She also gave Shanna information about how they would look different from how she knew them alive, and in what ways, what the setting of the funeral home would be, and that she could change her mind at any time about whatever decision she made. Shanna took in all the information and she said she definitely wanted to see them. She explained that "if I died, and they didn't come to see me and say good-bye, I would be so mad!" She did see them, was proud of her decision, and speaks of it today, several years later, as one of the best memories she has. Her mother had the wisdom to provide her with the information, express her own concerns, and allow her to choose.

When your parent died, were you invited to be involved in any of the following decisions or discussions?

  • Whether to cremate or bury.
  • What casket to select.
  • What your deceased parent would wear.
  • Placing something in the casket.
  • What kind of service to hold, if any.
  • Whether or not to attend a service.
  • Participating in a service.

If you had a choice in these matters, and your choices were respected, your experience was fortunate, and unfortunately, somewhat rare.

*Donna Schuurman is the Executive Director of The Dougy Center, a children's grief support program in Portland, Oregon and the source of excellent resources on grief and loss.

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