Why it is important to take children to funerals
My son Luca was thirteen when his father died. His father had been living in Germany and at the time of his unexpected death, my son and I were in Poland for my brother’s wedding. We managed to get to Germany in time to attend his cremation, which was kept very private and together with his older, half-brother Magnus we saw the coffin disappear into the flames, a confronting act that made the farewell very real, as we had not been able to say goodbye to his body anymore.
A few months later a memorial service was held. We gathered around his ashes, told stories, cried and laughed. At the end, we all cooked tagine's together on an outdoor fire, as this had been one of Juergens creative projects in life. As a potter he had sculpted the bowls himself, and at festivals he set up a Tagine Tent, where he served food and delicious Moroccan mint tea.
The next day we buried his ashes in a ‘Friedwald’, or burial forest, under a tree. Luca shoveled some earth onto the urn. All these steps, the cremation, the memorial service and the burial, helped us, and especially my young son Luca, to accept his death and to grief properly in the months and years to come.
When children lose a parent, it’s important not to exclude them from attending the funeral and to give them some space to grieve in their own way. But sometimes things run a different course.
Sofie Jans told her story in a Belgian newspaper last week. She was only thirty-four when she lost her husband JP to cancer. Their children, John and Chloe, were only three and one at the time and they barely have any memories of their father. “I tell the children often about their daddy", Sofie says. “They ask a lot of questions, but it can also be a pitfall. Because I think he was such a wonderful man, I tend to put him on a pedestal and picture him as a hero. The psychologist that I’m seeing, warned me: I have to be careful not to make JP into a ‘god’, that John will want to become, putting pressure on himself, or a man Chloe will keep looking for, while such a man may not exist.”
"I also realized that I made mistakes,” Sofie adds. “For example, I chose not to take the children to the funeral. I thought it would be a burden, and that it would be of no use to them. At the time I didn’t know any better and there was no professional around to tell me: take them with you, it’s very important to them.”
The exact same thing happened to Brett, who was eleven years old when his father died of cancer. His mother and grandparents decided he was too young to go to the funeral, and he was left with neighbours while the ceremony took place. After the burial everyone returned home. “There was lots of food. It seemed like a party,” says Brett. “People were sitting around talking about my father. I was just sure he would walk in any minute, and I became angrier and angrier when he didn't.”
Later in life Brett got into trouble and at eighteen, he wasn’t able to finish school. A therapist helped him to process the ‘frozen’ feelings around the death of his father, who Brett had idealized for a long time. Then, Brett organized a second ‘funeral’, a memorial service with family and friends, one that he could attend. Following this, he was able to graduate and to pick up the thread of his life, having also a more realistic image of his father.
You can read the full story of how Brett managed to heal his unresolved grief in my new ebook, together with many other examples of how we can make up for things we missed out on at some stage in our lives.
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