I learned early on that death is a part of life. I come from a large Irish/Italian/German family that is constantly in flux. Birth and death are part of the life process and both are cause for celebration. We share the joy when a baby enters our circle, and as much as we miss our loved ones when they pass away, we celebrate their lives upon their death.
Seeing family cry, laugh, and tell stories at wakes taught me it was OK to mourn, and especially right and comforting to share those emotions. It’s part of processing what happened and will inevitably happen again.
The question often arises as to whether children should attend a wake, and if so, at what age it is appropriate. Perhaps these questions come from the facts that we have less exposure to death today, we want to shelter our children from painful realities, the concept of death is difficult to comprehend much less explain, and it forces us to face our own mortality.
We also don’t want to frighten them. But what typically happens at a wake is that children are curious. They may ask questions, perhaps days later, but at the time, once viewing the remains, they go off and visit with family.
Children are capable of loving and grieving from the beginning. They will grieve what is lost, if not now, then later. The longer we prevent exposure to death, the more difficult and frightening it becomes.
We can assist our children by preparing them for the wake or service. We can tell them what we expect will happen and that some people may cry. Remind them of insects, animals, or people on TV they may have seen die. And we can use the occasion to teach about Jesus and heaven. We only need to prevent overloading them with information. Then we listen, and honestly respond to their questions.
Offering real experiences to our children presents opportunities to mentor and guide them on the realities of life. It allows them to begin processing this incredibly deep topic and gives them reference points to use in later years. And as people of faith, exposing our children to death reinforces the truth that God loves us now and through eternity.