Experience allows funeral directors to understand how the death of a child is unnatural and “out of order.” Compassion and understanding are paramount in helping bereaved families as they face the extreme emotional stress that accompanies such a death.
Because parents instinctively feel responsible for their child’s safety and health—regardless of the child’s age—many grieving parents blame themselves and harbor deep regrets. Parents often require and will appreciate guidance from the funeral director, especially concerning available options. Helping the parents make good decisions will also help them avoid later additional regrets.
Planning the Funeral
When a child dies and the mother and father have maintained the family, both should participate, if possible, in planning for the funeral. For the mother to be “protected” from helping with the details denies her the opportunity to parent one last time. Depending on possible extenuating circumstances, consider meeting with the parents either in the hospital or, preferably, in the less stressful surroundings of their home.
When a baby or infant dies, the mother may still be recovering in the hospital. In the case of the death of an older child, circumstances could make it difficult for both parents to be physically present for several days or longer. Every effort should be made to postpone the service until both parents are able to participate. If this is not feasible, it may be possible to take the child to a parent if in the hospital, but this should be decided on a case-by-case, institution-by-institution basis to ensure the safety of the public. If it is impossible for the mother or father to see the infant or baby prior to the funeral, a family member or friend videotaping the service may be particularly appreciated by the parent unable to attend.
If a decision is made not to hold a funeral service, as is the case with many stillbirths, a later memorial service can be suggested to facilitate both parents’ grief recovery and illustrate to relatives and friends the significance of the baby’s death.
Depending on the age of the child, some parents are left with few memories or mementos. A service in which friends, relatives, teachers, or classmates are given an opportunity to express fond thoughts about the child becomes a meaningful tribute.
As you work with the parents, don’t stifle your own reactions. Although you are there primarily to provide service and assist parents and families, if you should occasionally shed a tear, it is never inappropriate. The family will perceive this as caring.
How the Funeral Home Can Help
When a baby, infant, or young child has died, often the parents are young and have not given their own funerals any forethought, much less their child’s. Special consideration in the cost of the funeral home’s services will help lessen the stress on the parents and, undoubtedly, gain lifelong customers. A funeral director can also help as a middleman by negotiating lower costs for plots and grave markers on behalf of the family. Many cases have been publicized where the funeral home did not charge for its services as a way of helping the family.
Suggestions from Bereaved Parents
Outline all options available to the parents, taking into consideration the following suggestions. It is likely they will not know the appropriate questions to ask.
Inquire whether they have seen the child prior to coming to the funeral home. If not, be especially aware that many feel the need to do this, to prove the reality of their child’s death. If the body is mutilated, bandages are an appropriate way to cover the wounds. Seeing a birthmark, mole, or even a small scar may be all that is needed to prove that the child is indeed theirs.
If the family decides not to view (or touch) the body, advise the parents that many who have made this decision have regretted not having viewed their child. This visual memory may help in the months to come as the child’s death becomes believable. Suggest they wait another day to make up their minds or have a friend, who could verify that it is indeed their child, view the body. Seeing and saying good-bye to the physical body are important and help in the initial aspects of grief.
While parents can be involved in laying out the child, they may feel forced to do so if asked, believing they must do this to be good parents. Autopsy or other visible wounds can be traumatic to the parents. On the other hand, in the case of a stillbirth or infant death, this may be the only opportunity to parent their child. You, as a funeral director, will have to decide if it would help or hurt the parents by asking if they wish to participate in the preparation of their child for viewing.
Suggest the child be dressed as he or she would have wanted. Anything from blue jeans to a baseball uniform, a first communion dress, or a rock concert T-shirt would be appropriate, providing it was a favorite of the child.
Ask if the family would like to keep a lock of hair and if they have a special blanket with which to cover their child.
Suggest that personal expressions of the family, such as a “good-bye” letter, family pictures, mementos, toys, or drawings can be very meaningful when placed in the casket.
Encourage the family to make the service as personal as possible. Help the parents be creative in their ideas. A memory table containing the child’s favorite possessions could be a special tribute to that child.
When allowing the family to view the child before the general public and prior to the service, ask the parents whom they want present. Often they will want time alone with the child before bringing in other family members.
Helping Other Family Members
Surviving children are often considered the “forgotten mourners.” Suggest ways to include them in the planning of the service, as well as the service itself. Young children might want to place a drawing or a toy in the casket. Older children may have suggestions for music or poetry that would make the service more personal and meaningful for them; or they may want to say a few words in remembrance of a special sibling.
Whenever possible, after assisting the immediate family, direct attention to the grandparents. Grandparents not only feel the painful impact of the death of their grandchild, but also experience an immense feeling of helplessness at not being able to take the pain away from their own child.
Helping the Family After the Service
How you assist the family following the service is important in their approach to the grief process. By referring the family to a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, you can help the family meet with others who have experienced a similar loss. Special friendships can ensue and coping skills can be passed along by those who are farther along the grief path.
©2008-2010 The Compassionate Friends, USA - All rights reserved. These materials are protected by U.S. copyright and are provided here for personal use only. Reproduction for mass distribution or for use on any website is prohibited.
The current printing of this brochure was sponsored by
Janet O'Donnell, Kathy Rambo, and TCF Livonia
in memory of Brian O'Donnell and Jason Rambo
and all the children of the chapter
James "Chris" Lizzadro
TCF brochures may be purchased at a nominal cost through The Compassionate Friends by calling 877-969-0010 or by going to the Resource Section of The Compassionate Friends national website. You can sponsor a brochure printing through our Brochure Program.