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The Purpose of Meaning of Ritual In The Life Of a Bereaved Child
by Vicki Straughan, LMSW   Director, Dallas Kids GriefWorks

Donna Schuurman, in her book Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent, states that rituals are ceremonies that help us mark significant events. Rituals of remembrance give meaning to the life that was, as well as the lives that are. Pausing to mourn and remember a loved one gives meaning to the life he or she lived, and the mourners vicariously learn their own lives have meaning. No one would argue that a death in the life of a child is significant, and the way children are treated regarding the rituals following a death gives a message. The message is either: “My relationship was not significant enough to merit saying goodbye, so my life isn’t as significant as others” or “My relationship is significant enough to merit saying goodbye with others, so my life and relationships are significant.” Ritual is, therefore, for the living--of all ages.

Four issues need to be clarified for young children (Christ, Healing Children’s Grief):

  • The body stops functioning when a person dies.
  • Death is irreversible; the parent or person will not come back.
  • Death is different from what happens on television; dead people do not come back again in reruns.
  • Death has an emotional context: The people who loved the dead person not only feel sad but also angry or afraid.

Including children in rituals such as funerals and memorials gives the children an opportunity to address these issues, perhaps in repetitive questioning. They also have concrete images of disposition of a dead body (unless there is no body as in a memorial service). Without a body, the child still gets to experience the goodbye.

John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory,  proposed that even a young child could mourn a dead parent under favorable conditions. They are:

  • A reasonably secure relationship with both parents before the loss
  • Prompt receipt of accurate information about what had happened (regarding the loss)
  • Encouragement to ask relevant questions
  • The opportunity to participate in funeral rites (bold mine)
  • And the comforting presence of the surviving parent (and other trusted adults) (Christ, Healing Children’s Grief)

Since mourning is the externalization of grief, it is important to allow children to participate in funeral rituals so that they can begin to find expression for the internal feelings of grief they are experiencing.

Adults are often reluctant to allow children to participate in rituals because they wish to protect children from pain. Children are going to experience pain when a loved one dies, and children would be better served to be prepared for and included in rituals. Grace Christ found that the “funeral and burial rites provide children with great solace and support if they are prepared in advance and able to participate.”  One of the reconciliation needs of mourning is to move toward the pain of the loss (Wolfelt and others). Participation in funeral rituals provides an opportunity for children to move toward the pain they feel and experience it corporately with other loved ones, rather than be isolated from adult support during that time.

The Preschool Child

Children do not actually expect a parent to die even if they are prepared in advance. Participating in the funeral rituals, supervised by a supportive relative or friend, can actually help the child gain a more concrete understanding of the death. They will still ask, “When is Daddy coming home?” They are trying to understand concepts of dead, eternity, etc., with these repeated questions. Grieving adults in the child’s life may interpret these questions as annoying or an expression of the child’s neediness, and it is helpful to both child and adult to reassure the adult that the child is trying to make sense of the death.

Giving children a possession of the dead loved one is comforting to them and provides a link to the dead person. Remembering things the child did with the loved one is also a comfort.

Some children begin to question if other adults will die, or if they might die. They may develop somatic complaints. Some children regress to a safer time, resulting in changes in sleeping, eating and toilet training.

Older Children

Older children seem to be helped by attending funeral/memorial rituals and observing a large number of people in attendance who cared for their family and the person who died. They report being glad they participated and find pleasure in their reminiscences of the funeral.

Children this age may be encouraged to place an object in the casket. Letters, pictures, teddy bears, drawings, poetry, stones, baseball cards or other treasure specific to the child and loved one are just some items that may make their way into a loved one’s casket. Other ways to include children is allowing them to hand out a program if they wish to do something public, or make them honorary pallbearers.

Children six through eight may think the loved one watches over them from heaven, and they will likely talk to the dead loved one. They are likely to ask direct questions and be outspoken. Children this age may express a wish to die themselves, which are expressions of longing and distress, rather than suicidal ideation. These children may want to sleep with the surviving parent (if a parent has died) because of an increase in separation anxiety.

Children nine through eleven need more time to prepare for a parent’s death than younger children. They need to be kept in the communication loop. Two boys whose mother had stage IV ovarian cancer found out about their mother’s illness from their cousins because mom had confided in her sister. The boys resented that they were not first to know this news, but with help of a counselor, they asked their parents to talk with them before others so that they knew the important issues of their family. Hospital visits are important for this age child because the concrete evidence of the illness helps them face the reality. Intense reactions can be expected from this age group. One child laughed when told of a parent’s death, which is a sign of acute anxiety.  Another child locked himself in the bedroom because he did not want to hear the news until he was ready.  These children are old enough to have a role in funeral/memorial rituals. Children this age may resent being overlooked during this time. Roles these children can take are reading scripture or poetry, acting as a pallbearer, saying a prayer, greeting guests. Some children in this age group may also work hard to appear brave and cover sad feelings. They seem more interested in their own participation in rituals, rather than needing to interact with peers.


Early adolescents (12-14) want to participate in the rituals and then return to their normal schedule as soon as possible. They sometimes feel oppressed by the crowds and having to share family members with visitors. They seem not to want to cry at funerals/memorials and prefer to cry alone in the comfort of their own rooms.  This age group wanted to place objects in the caskets of their loved ones, but the objects chosen reflect the personality and interests of the person who died.

After the funeral, this age group was observed as “life went on.” Some other family members resented or were surprised at how successful these children were at avoiding or concealing their grief.

Older adolescents (15-17) feel a responsibility to honor the life of their loved one, as well as responsibility for other family members. They want to and do participate in the funeral rituals, including making decisions regarding the funeral/memorial. The mourning of this age group reflects a similar process to adult mourning. There is a period of numbness before the intense feelings begin. This age group does not seem to need to place transitional objects in the casket, nor are they as interested in having possessions of the loved one. If it is a parent who has died, this age group mourns what the parent meant to them, as well as what the absence of the parent will mean to them in the future. They have the task of integrating the loss across past, present and future.

Where once children were aware of the cycle of life through observations of life and death on farms, or where bodies were brought into the home to await burial, today’s children can be far removed from death, dying and grief issues. Because of the prolonged life expectancy and reduced child mortality, a person may only experience the death of a family member once every 20 years (Wolfelt, Healing the Bereaved Child). Illnesses and deaths may occur in hospitals or nursing homes, which reduces the likelihood of children witnessing the aging and dying of a loved one.

Our culture is of one of grief-defying, deritualization, and mourning avoiding. This attitude can prevent children from developing healthy ways of mourning.  Participation in ritual encourages children to move into their grief journeys. The needs of grieving children are:

  • Acknowledge the reality of the death
  • Move toward the pain of the loss, while being nurtured physically, emotionally, and spiritually
  • Convert the relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory
  • Develop a new self-identity based on a life without the person who died
  • Relate the experience of the death to a context of meaning
  • Experience a continued supportive adult presence in the future

All of the above needs can begin to be addressed through a child’s participation in ritual. Caring adults will understand that this is just the beginning of the child’s grief journey and will work to be present for the child as he/she makes his/her way into the future.

Christ, Grace Hyslop, Healing Children’s Grief, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schuurman, Donna, Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent, St. Martin’s Press, 2003.

Wolfelt, Alan D., Healing the Bereaved Child , Companion Press,1996.

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