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Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

By | Living Well, Meaningful Funerals

Death and funerals are an inescapable part of life. It’s hard to know what to do when our children encounter death for the first time. As much as we would like to protect them from pain and distress, we can’t. But we can teach them how to process death and cope with grief in healthy ways.

Understanding the Purpose of a Funeral

First, it’s always good to start with why we have funerals in the first place. According to respected grief counselor, author, and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the funeral ritual “helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.”

The six needs Dr. Wolfelt outlines above – the 6 needs of mourning – are met through a healing and meaningful funeral ceremony. And similar to adults, children have the same need, right, and privilege to participate in a funeral. In some ways, the structure of the funeral ceremony may be even more important for children because they have not yet learned how to process the deep and sometimes conflicting emotions they may feel.

Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

Children learn how to participate in funerals.

None of us innately knows what to expect or how to behave at funerals. Instead, we learn by seeing, hearing, and asking questions. Many of us came to understand the dos and don’ts of funerals by attending them and by asking a knowledgeable adult our questions. In order for a child to understand what is appropriate and respectful, to know how to behave in the future, they must learn about funerals and be allowed to see the ceremony in action.

Children learn that death is a natural part of life.

Death is a part of life. Just as a child needs to learn how to deal with disappointment, process explosive emotions, or adapt to social situations, they must also learn how to process death and dying. Children are exposed to death early on. They see dead leaves, bugs, or dead animals. Our children know more about death than we might expect. Giving them an opportunity to learn and understand death in a controlled setting is valuable.

Children learn how to say goodbye.

Two of the important things that happen at funerals are that 1) mourners have the chance to say goodbye and 2) there is a public acknowledgment that the relationship has changed (from one of presence to one of memory). Both are necessary for adults and children. Children need an opportunity to say goodbye, especially with close relationships (as is the case with a parent, sibling, grandparent, best friend, teacher, etc.). As part of saying goodbye, you might consider allowing an age-appropriate, willing child to participate in the ceremony by lighting a candle, reading a short passage, or singing a song.

Children witness the complexity of emotions.

Human beings are complex and messy. We experience many different emotions, and sometimes, we don’t even know why we feel a certain way. Children need to understand early that everyone experiences emotion, and everyone deals with their emotion differently. And ultimately, each child must learn how to process and deal with their own emotions. The funeral gives parents an opportunity to help children process their emotions by answering questions or talking about what happened after the ceremony. Children who were close to the person who died may need to process feelings of anger, abandonment, and fear. Observing others process their emotions through the funeral will give children examples of how to cope with grief in a healthy way.

Children see the value of supporting each other.

The funeral activates a system of support for those who are mourning. Friends and neighbors bring food, offer to watch the kids, or help in whatever ways they can. Condolences and heartfelt thoughts are offered to the bereaved. Children need to see the value of community support and learn how to offer such support in the future. For example, young children may ask why adults around them are crying, and they may practice offering to comfort others and showing support by giving a hug or patting a family member on the back. In some ways, children offer a kind of support without even trying: hope for the future.

Children learn how to honor and respect the lives of others.

If you remember Dr. Wolfelt’s quote, one of the purposes of a funeral is to “give testimony to the life of the deceased.” In other words, to recall our memories and share them with others. By doing this, we honor and respect the life that was lived and begin our grief journey on the right foot. Through the eulogy, the personalization of the ceremony or gathering, and other elements of a meaningful funeral, children learn that we must honor and respect the lives of others.

Children learn to treasure life.

If a funeral is done well, it touches the hearts of those in attendance. In fact, it should teach all of us just how precious life is and remind us how we want to live. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “People who take the time and make the effort to create meaningful funeral arrangements…remember and reconnect with what is most meaningful to them in life. They strengthen bonds with family members and friends. They emerge changed, more authentic and purposeful. The best funerals remind us how we should live.” What an important lesson to learn early in life – to value the life you have and make the most of it.

What if my child isn’t ready?

Whether or not your child attends a funeral is entirely up to you. You know your child best – what they can handle and what they can’t. For infants and toddlers (ages 4 and under), attendance will not necessarily have any great meaning or significance, but for those who are preschool aged or older, it’s best to thoughtfully consider how to proceed. While we don’t want to force children to do something, we also need to teach them how to cope with and handle the difficulties life will throw at them. It’s up to you to decide if they are ready.

If you decide not to take your child to the funeral ceremony, here are some other options:

  1. Check to see if the funeral home has childcare available (this service is sometimes offered).
  2. Hire a babysitter. If you know a number of other parents who plan to attend the funeral, you may be able to hire one or two babysitters to watch a larger number of children.

What if my child is too young to understand what is happening at the funeral?

No matter what his or her age, if your child has lost a close family member, help them find a way to process their emotions as they grow up by giving them what a funeral ceremony provides for an adult. Find ways to acknowledge the death, remember the life, offer comfort and support, help them express their feelings about the loss, and help them create meaning and identity as they develop a relationship with their deceased loved one based on the memories shared by adults in their lives. You might take them to visit the cemetery or tell stories every year on their loved one’s birthday. Throughout the year, incorporate traditions, rituals, crafts, and keepsakes as part of your child’s grieving process.

The important thing to remember is that your child will need to come to terms with a significant loss at every stage of development until adulthood. So, keep bringing back the lessons learned from the funeral year after year. Your consistency over the years will help your child grow up feeling like they know who the person was and who they are as a result, which is the biggest life lesson of all.

How to Live a Meaningful Life

By | Living Well

We all want to make some sort of difference in the world. This desire seems built into the human spirit.

In his landmark book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks readers to think through a powerful exercise: visualize your own funeral. Knowing you still have many years left to live and invest into the lives of others, consider for a few moments what you would want your closest loved ones to say about you at the funeral service. What do you want people to remember about you? Think about your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. What would you want them to say about the life that you lived?

What Makes Life Meaningful?

Living a meaningful life doesn’t mean living by one certain formula. A meaningful life can take many forms and vary from person to person. Think about the most influential people in your own life. While each person has probably impacted your life in a variety of ways, there are likely certain principles that each one lived by that led them to influence your life for the better.  Take a look at the 6 principles below to help you as you consider what you can do to live your best life from this day forward.

1. Value people and relationships more than things

A hospice nurse’s interviews with palliative care patients have recently revealed the top five things people regret at the end of life. Among the top 5 regrets, #2 was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard,” the biggest regret that the men in the group expressed. The reason? They missed their children’s youth and the companionship of their spouse. Many of us spend a great deal of time pursuing things other than relationships: a successful career at work, a perfect image in the mirror, or even fame and fortune, but deep down, we know that those things are not what make life meaningful or worth living. All we have to do is look at the lives of celebrities to know that fame and fortune can’t bring true happiness or fulfillment. The drive to succeed can distract us for a time, but “success” cannot really fulfill our deepest need: the desire for meaning, significance, and connection. After all, life is not about what we accumulate; it’s about the relationships we’ve built and the people we love. To live meaningfully, make people and relationships your top priority, before work, before wealth, and before achieving success (however you define it), and you won’t live to regret a single day of your life.

2. Find where you belong

We all want to feel wanted and to belong somewhere. We are born into a place to belong – a family, a tribe. But sometimes, as much as we might like it to be the case, our families don’t or can’t meet our need to belong. And so, we feel out of place. If this is you, don’t lose hope. You can still find people who value you and whom you can value in return. For some, it will be a close-knit family. For others, it will be friends, members of a community, or a faith group. With most, it will be a mixture of both groups. But no matter who your tribe is, find them, love them, spend time with them, and do life with them.

3. Discover your passions and pursue them

The third principle is to find out what you’re passionate about and pursue it. Your unique gifts are part of the answer to the world’s problems. Think about it this way: if you don’t pursue your passion, the world will miss out on something amazing. Basically, you have two choices: you can live your life on purpose, or you can let life happen to you. If you choose to live with purpose, you ensure that the things you value most actually happen. You prioritize your passions and pursue your dreams. And dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you want to be a teacher, raise happy, healthy children, cook delectable meals for family and friends, start a blog, or write a book. No dream is too small – go for it! And the world will be a better place because of it.

4. Find a way to give of yourself

Our natural tendency is to focus inward, to look at our own issues and problems. But to live meaningfully, we need to step outside of ourselves and focus on others. Volunteering is an excellent way to give of yourself. Plus, there are so many different ways to volunteer – you can find one just right for you. By giving of your time and efforts, you make an impact on those around you, strengthen your connections and your community, learn new skills and teach your own skills to others, and you also improve your health. Volunteering is proven to reduce stress and increase overall well-being. It’s that powerful.

5. Live courageously

Living courageously means that you are living with purpose and intentionality while being true to yourself. You have to be willing to take some risks, even if you think you might fail or face rejection. Thomas Edison, when asked about his failure to make a working light bulb, said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In other words, if we learn from what we would call our failings, they aren’t failings. They are opportunities for growth and will help us get closer to living the life we want.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you have to go skydiving or hike Mt. Everest, but it does mean that you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone at times. In the interviews with palliative care patients that revealed the the top five things people regret at the end of life, two of the top five regrets were: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

Sometimes, it’s easier to “go with the flow” and ignore our own needs, feelings, and desires in favor of doing what others expect us to do. But to live a meaningful life with no regrets, we have to be willing to share our true selves with others. Stepping outside of that comfort zone can be scary. But the rewards of living a meaningful life are definitely worth it. The reality is that when we have the courage to live authentically, we inspire others to do the same.

6. Live with kindness and compassion

Finally, to live a meaningful life, we must practice kindness and compassion. In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly rare to find people who sincerely care about the lives and circumstances of others. To live meaningful lives, we need to be those people, intentionally looking for ways to help others. Even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion can have an impact. Also, according to recent research, compassion helps us connect with others in a meaningful way, which in turn, improves our mental and physical health, speeds up recovery time from illness, and may even lengthen our lifespans. Kindness is good for us and good for others, too.

So, now that you’ve learned about some principles to living a meaningful life, what do you want people to say about you at your funeral? Take a few moments to really think about what changes you can make today to live a more meaningful life. Take it one day at a time. Finding meaning and living intentionally won’t happen in a day. A meaningful life is made up of thousands of small, deliberate choices that, in the end, tell a beautiful tale of a life well-lived.