Goals & Objectives

With Explanations by Author Karen Nilsen

Children who are prepared for a new experience are able to participate in that experience with confidence and understanding. As I explained some of the things that eleven year old Greg and his brother, Karl, might see, hear and experience at the visitation and funeral, I told them they might see some people who looked sad and maybe would be crying. They accepted this, as they had seen people crying at their house the past few days.

When I added they might also see some people who looked happy and would be laughing, Greg said, “That is really rude! I think I would punch them in the stomach if I saw that.” I told them the story of my GRANDPA AMOS’ funeral when I was a little girl.  I saw some people laughing and I felt angry.  How could someone be laughing when I felt so sad? I discovered they were talking about the time Grandpa put on Grandma’s wig and played the banjo. Greg and his brother laughed. “Oh I see,  they were remembering something funny. Well, then, I guess that’s okay.”

I asked the boys to share something funny or a special time they remembered about their grandpa. Greg’s brother Karl, age seven, told about the time his grandfather had taken the boys fishing. “All day he kept telling us not to stand up in the boat. He said we might fall in. Well, when we got to the dock, he stood up to grab the dock, and he fell in the lake! We laughed so hard.” So you see, I said, even at sad times, we can remember special things about our loved who died and we can have happy thoughts too. The mixed emotions and atypical behaviors children see at the visitation and funeral can be confusing.  To them, the world is either black or white, people are either happy or sad, good or bad, etc.

As a parent, and now, a grandparent, I have discovered just how quickly time goes by and how fast children grow up. Within 10 -15 years this generation of kids WILL be those decision makers I talked about. We need to show them NOW the benefits of a funeral service.

I was talking to a funeral director online some time ago and he relayed this information to me:  He said he drives by a local competitor’s firm every day on his way to work. In the front window is a sign that reads: NO ONE UNDER 14 ADMITTED.  I was stunned!  To exclude children of any age goes against my belief that children of all ages can and do benefit from participating in the visitation and funeral service.

The time spent at the funeral home should be tailored to fit the needs and capabilities of each individual child, I agree, but the reasoning behind excluding all children is a puzzlement to me – except that perhaps it may add a few years to the life of the carpeting and upholstery.

A funeral director from North Carolina shared this story with me: Two visitations were being held on the same night. Both were well attended and the foyer was crowded with people. A young boy entered the other visitation room and approached an elderly gentleman (the widower). He reached out his little hand and said, ”My grandma died, would you like to see her?” They quickly found their common ground.

Children are affected by the death of a loved one. They too need to share their grief and sadness with others who understand how they are feeling. Often we assume that if a child does not ask questions he or she doesn’t have any. Or, if they don’t display their grief, they don’t feel any. It is important to address the needs and feelings of children at the time of the death and funeral, and again through out the extended grieving process. Keeping the memories of their loved one alive and fresh is a wonderful tribute to the person who died.

Children hear the many new words and phrases pertaining to the funeral process but don’t always understand what they mean. Explaining the meaning of these new words can take out some of their mystery and give children a sense of power over this emotionally charged and sometimes frightening experience.

At the beginning of each class I explain that this time spent together at the funeral home is called the VISITATION, and that this word has the word VISIT in it. Everyone is gathered together to visit with one another to talk about all the special things they remember about their loved one and to say goodbye for the last time.

As I introduce each new word, i.e. CASKET, HEARSE, CEMETERY, GRAVE, etc., I have the children repeat them back to me.  I am careful using the word “WAKE” , because children may misinterpret this to be AWAKE as in not ASLEEP, and think, “Maybe the person who died is going to wake up?”

I ask the children if they have heard any new words the past few days that they don’t understand. I throw out a few like: CONDOLENCES, SYMPATHY, COFFIN, PALLBEARERS, etc.  I ask them if they have heard someone say, “PASSED AWAY, PASSED ON, PASSED OVER, WE LOST GRANDPA/GRANDMA, GONE TO ETERNAL REST or SLEEP.” I explain that all of this words are another way to say that someone died.   I tell them that sometimes it is hard for people to say DIED or DEAD, but that these words are okay to say and that they really describe what actually happened to their loved one.  Their body has died.

During the story Grandpa Amos, children see photos of the equipment of the funeral. They see a picture of a casket before they see their loved one lying in one. “My grandpa is in a basket,”  three year old Ria said assuredly.  I smiled and said, “That’s almost right.  Your grandpa’s body is lying in a casket.” Easter was approaching and she had overheard the word casket and assumed it was a basket-an EASTER basket. Children are listening to what we say – they just need accurate information.

When I explained that the casket would be lowered down into a vault, Maddy, age seven, raised her hand excitedly, “That’s what I do at gymnastics!“ Imagine the picture in her mind of her grandmother being buried in a pommel horse. It is important to use clear, concise explanations about death and the funeral with young children, but even our best laid plans can backfire. A picture can be worth a thousand words.

Often times, children are not able to express their thoughts or feelings in words. The use of an art medium can give a child the opportunity to express some of these feelings in pictures or designs. I have found that some of our best discussions have occurred during the craft activity while their hands are busy and their minds are open.

Each child is invited to show their design to the group and explain it’s meaning if any. Brandon was coloring his picture frame with large, tan, comma shapes all over the the cover. One of his siblings asked him what he was drawing for his grandma’s picture.  He replied, “I am drawing her bones,” as he held it up for all to see. It was mid-October and this three year old had seen skeletons in the store windows.  He assumed that since his grandmother had died, her body had turned to bones.

We talked about how his grandma would look in the casket and I reassured him that he would not see her bones.  I think he was a little disappointed.  The older kids looked relieved!

The STAR Class was not intended as a grief therapy or counseling session, but simply a class that teaches children about the funeral and gives them an opportunity to begin to process the events taking place around them. It does give kids the opportunity to share feelings and to learn that mad, glad, sad feelings are normal and okay.

A child’s grief is a real, intense pain. Not only must they deal with the loss of a companion, they have the added problem of immaturity and confusion when dealing with complex issues such as the death of a child.  In a child’s world, only “bad” people and old people are supposed to die.

This may be the ONLY time during this 2 or 3 day period that adults can grieve openly without worrying that children will be observing. Parents are often reluctant to cry in front of children, and although we know it is okay, and most often beneficial if they do, adults appreciate this short time alone.

Often times, children come to the funeral home with a letter they have written or picture they have colored for the deceased. The STAR message can augment that gift. For others, it is an opportunity to express final thoughts and words to the deceased that otherwise would not be said. Most children have been eager to read their messages out loud and/or display them for all to see. But some children, especially the older ones, want to keep their messages private. Some children have tucked their STAR message into the pocket of the deceased’s jacket or placed it beneath the pillow. I feel it is very important to respect their wishes in this matter.

Ten year old Mark sat staring at the yellow paper STAR. “I can’t think of anything to write,”  Mark sighed. “My grandpa didn’t like me.  It happened about a year ago. He yelled at me and even swore at me. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to let his dog run away. But he didn’t listen.”

I responded, “It sounds like you have some angry feelings about that.”  He nodded.  “And now that he has died, you can’t make things better between you.”  He nodded again. His grandfather had been ill and had the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. I explained how illness can cause people to act crabby, how we all can have angry feelings sometimes and that people can say things that they regret later. “He didn’t say he was sorry,” Mark continued.  “He never did.  But, now that he is in heaven, maybe he can read my message.”

Mark wrote his STAR message behind the cover of his little hand, shielding it’s content from the rest of the group. I offered him another paper STAR to staple to the first one to keep his message a secret. The two joined STARS were encased in staples.  His message was safe.

Your Funeral Home can provide this solution!

Set your Funeral Home apart from your competition by providing this service to your at-need families. All you need to get started is The STAR Kit, which contains everything necessary to implement this innovative and valuable program. The Instructor’s Manual takes you step by step through the class with a script, pictures, samples and stories.

Providing this specialty to your Funeral Home’s client families is a wonderful way to show your community that you care.