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CHILDREN SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO GRIEVE

Q. At what age is it appropriate to take a child to a family funeral? How do you prepare the child? Should you ask the child if he wants to go? What have other parents learned that they can share with us?

-- Parent from Cleveland, Ohio

A. Provided they are mature enough to behave respectfully at the service, children should be given adequate information and be allowed to decide for themselves whether to attend a funeral.

"We know now that children understand more about dying and death than their parents or professionals ever thought possible," says Rabbi Earl Grollman of Belmont, Mass., who has written several books on the subject including the best-selling "Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child" (Beacon Press, $14.95).

"Trying to protect children from death is a falsehood," he says. "You cannot protect children from reality in today's world, but what you can do is bring them into the grieving process."

Many Child Life readers agree.

"A child should not be sheltered from what is a normal process in life," says Denise Williams, a physician in Fredericksburg, Va. "You should talk to the child before they go to the funeral, explain to them what will happen, explain they will see the loved one, but the loved one will not hear them or understand them."

Children also need to know that people may be crying, and that's normal. They should be told where the service will be, who will be there, what things will look like and whom they would sit with. With this sort of detailed information, children should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to attend, says William Kroen, a psychotherapist in Belmont, Mass., who works with children in the Cambridge school system.

"Ask them if they want to attend," says Kroen, author of "Helping Children Cope With the Loss of a Loved One" (Free Spirit Publishing, $13.95). "They should not be forced to attend or made to feel guilty if they don't want to go."

Many readers called to warn that forbidding children to attend a funeral when they want to go can breed lasting resentment.

"I was in second grade when my grandfather passed away, and my parents did not let me go to the funeral even though I wanted to go," says Lisa Craz of Richmond, Va. "I don't feel like I fully got over his death until I was able to go see his grave in high school."

Some children are able to make these decisions as young as 3 or 4, depending on their maturity. Whether they can behave in a way that will be respectful to other mourners during the service should be considered.

Most experts agree that even though children younger than 6 may not be able to have a concrete understanding of the finality of death and of everything that happens at a service, they still benefit from being included.

"Children need to express their emotions just as adults do," Rabbi Grollman says. "When we allow our children to see us expressing our own feelings that are natural to us, we provide the basis for them to express their feelings."

Several readers found it helpful to take their children to the funeral of someone they knew but were not emotionally attached to as a first step in understanding the process.

"As older parents, we knew our daughter would face a funeral of a loved one sooner than average," says N. Green of Wooster, Ohio. "Off and on we took her to other funerals, so when her only grandmother died when she was 12, she had other experiences to draw upon."

Margaret MacDonald of Buffalo agrees.

"My parents took us along with them from the time we were 5 or 6 -- it was just considered the natural thing to do," Ms. MacDonald says. "We accepted this and never had a problem. We brought our own children up the same way, and they have never had any fear of attending."

Can you help?

PLAY BALL: "Help -- my 22-month-old daughter throws everything," says Tracy Stofflet of Scottsdale, Ariz. "If she is holding something, and I ask her nicely to put it down or give it to me, she throws it. What can I do?"

Child Life is a forum for parents to ask child-rearing questions and share tips with other parents. If you have advice, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2322 Hales Road, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to bevmills@aol.com

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