Dear Dr. Bill,
We have a great-aunt in our family who is terminally ill. My two kids, ages 8 and 5 are very close to this aunt, but I’m uncertain how well they will handle a funeral service. Can you offer me some guidance in this situation?
Most young children don’t have the capacity to comprehend abstract concepts like death and eternity. Your 5-year-old may not fully understand what is happening to your aunt, and won’t be able to understand the permanence of her death after she is gone.
As you discuss your aunt’s impending death, keep the discussion of spiritual principles simple, geared for your children’s level of maturity and insight. Explain to them that God promises us in the Bible that if we believe in Jesus, pray to him, and are honest about our faults, he promises to give us eternal life.
Even though our physical bodies may get sick and die, we will continue to live with Him in heaven. Someday we will have brand-new bodies that will never get sick or die.
Remember that your children will look to you for “cues” about what emotions to feel and how to respond. Be honest about your feelings, acknowledge your own grief, and let your kids know that you understand that this is a very sad time for them.
Attending the funeral may give your children a sense of closure, especially if the ceremony focuses on the hope that we have in Christ. However, if for some reason the ceremony features an open casket, I would not allow your children to view their aunt’s body. My personal feeling is that an experience like that could be too traumatic for a young child.
Also, allow your kids opportunities to ask you questions and discuss their fears both before and after the funeral.
Thanks for writing Lisa. If you have a question for me about family issues or Christian living, click the “Question” link on the Family Expert page.
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