Back in the day, “dinners-on-the-grounds” were common events in small Southern churches. Following the Sunday service, everyone went outside to tables piled high with fried chicken, baked beans, corn on the cob and peach cobbler. After lunch, the ladies drifted into the churchyard. They pulled weeds, planted flowers and cleaned tombstones while their children played hide-and-seek and chased squirrels. These were tranquil afternoons set aside for honoring the departed.
Such casualness in a cemetery may seem unnatural to modern mourners, and children, especially, have become more sheltered from the rituals of death.
However, most bereavement experts agree that visiting the gravesite can be a great comfort to kids and a good time for parents to address unanswered questions. Any age is appropriate if a child is willing to go and doesn’t seem fearful or anxious. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a noted grief counselor, has said, “Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”
Below are some tips for relieving anxiety about the first gravesite visit.
Explain Where You Are
The first visit is a fine opportunity to teach the purpose of a cemetery. You might explain it as a place to remember and honor those who have died. Connecting the deceased with a physical location may help your child understand that someone he loved didn’t just suddenly disappear.
You can tell him that while the friend or loved one is no longer present in everyday life, he is still very much “alive” in memories, thoughts and hearts. If faith holds a prominent place in your family, it’s a perfect occasion for conveying your beliefs.
A gravesite visit will also provide a chance to explain why you are sad. Children often feel neglected during the events surrounding a death. They crave stability after the many hospital visits, the strangers coming and going, the frenzied funeral arrangements. It’s an ideal time to reassure your child that you love and care for him even if you cry a lot lately or seem inattentive.
Describe memories of your child and the deceased together. Bring along pictures of his first Christmas with Dad or a fishing trip with the favorite uncle he lost. This will make him feel included and important.
Make a Memorable Day
If it’s possible to momentarily set aside your grief, try to make the gravesite visit enjoyable. Make plans about how you’ll care for the grave together in the future.
You might suggest that your child plant his own flowers to bring. Ask him about ideas for homemade cards and gifts. Take the supplies for making a memorial rubbing he can hang in his room if he likes.
Finally, it’s not called comfort food for nothing: Packing a picnic basket will restore a sense of routine.
A Time to Mourn
Counselors do not advise dictating a child’s grief behavior. Kids mourn and heal in their own way and on their own time. If your child seems uninterested, don't be concerened. He may not yet be ready to confront his own feelings. Don’t rush to explain everything; instead, answer only the questions he asks as they arise.