Saying Goodbye to Your Child
There is no greater pain, no more immense loss in a family, than the death of a child. We are here to help support you, guide you, and be with you during your longest, darkest night of the soul.
Burial Options & Information
To begin, if at all possible, both parents (if appropriate) should be involved in planning the funeral and memorial services. Parents who were overlooked in the planning process often say they felt uncomfortable with the choices others made for their child’s farewell services. Well meaning relatives and friends may try to assume the burden to save the parents and siblings from the pain. While the process will certainly be excruciatingly grievous, it is also a very important for parents’ choices to be heard, respected, and enacted.
Selecting the Funeral Home
Base your selection on several factors. First, make some phone calls and speak with the funeral director. Be sure to tell him or her that you have just experienced the death of your child or a child family member. His or her attitude should be sensitive and gentle. If you feel a sense of over-professionalism or if the funeral director seems to disconnected or unfeeling, move on to the next and try another funeral home. Ensuring that the funeral director will be sensitive to your needs as a bereaved parent is of the utmost import.
If you are comfortable with the funeral director’s degree of compassion, awareness and sensitivity over the phone, arrange for an in-person visit. Upon arrival, consider the options that they have available to you, remembering important issues such as location, flexibility of service options, coordination options with clergy and the cemetery you have chosen, and payment arrangements. Be sure to make your memorial desires clear to the director so that he or she will be able to coordinate the schedule and other arrangements according to your wishes. If a funeral director tries to press you to do – or not to do – something about which you feel strongly, you can push back or call someone who can advocate for you. This is your child. These are your decisions.
If it is too difficult for you to deal directly with the funeral director, find a family member or support group volunteer you trust to communicate and coordinate requests for the memorial service on your behalf.
Options to Consider
There are two types of funerals. One is with your child present so that family members and friends may have the opportunity to say good bye; the other is without your child present. You may chose an open or closed casket viewing. If you choose to have your child present, consider decorating his or her casket with pictures of his or her family, stuffed animals or toys, his or her favorite hobby icons, flowers and other items of memorial. A common myth surrounding a burial is that all bodies must be embalmed. Embalming is your decision. Express your questions and concerns to your director. In some states, home funerals are an option. It is important to have a trained team to support you should you choose this.
If you are considering cremation, think about what you would like to do with your child’s ashes before acting on your final decision. Most bereaved parents who cremate are very comfortable with their decision. If you do cremate, you may keep the ashes in an urn at your home, you may bury the ashes (interred) with a memorial headstone or you may scatter the ashes at a special location. If you choose to scatter the ashes, we strongly recommend that you save a small portion of the ashes to keep. There are special boxes, charm necklaces and mini urns that are available to keep a small portion of the ashes in. If you decide to cremate, you may still have a memorial service for family and friends.
If you are feeling pressured into cremation either by a lack of funds, lack of time or sheer confusion surrounding the decision making process, please ask someone professionally to assist you in that decision so you do not have regrets later.
Some parents express that they feel cheated if they do not have a special place to go and care for their child’s body. An occasional visit to the cemetery where your child is buried or the ashes are placed can have a special healing effect, as many parents have expressed. It is a place to go on your child’s birthday or Christmas to remember your child or even just a serene place to go and gather your thoughts.
It is an individual decision, however, either way we recommend much consideration be given to this subject.
It is important to have a memorial service whether you have made the decision to bury or cremate. You may choose where to have the service, for example you may have it at the funeral home, at the cemetery or even at your home. If you have made the decision to scatter your child’s ashes in a special location, you may have a memorial service, called a committal service at that special location.
Please include siblings in the memorial service. Offer them an opportunity to speak, read a letter or a poem to their brother or sister. Encourage siblings to draw a picture or write a letter and allow them to place it in the casket with their sibling. Also, choosing a special toy or memorial item from home is helpful. Older siblings may want to help carry the casket at the cemetery. By including siblings in the service, it will grant them the realization of the death of their brother or sister and also give them special memories, even though painful, they will carry their lifetime.
The memorial service can be directed by your clergyman or woman, a staff member of the funeral home or even a friend or family member. Please consider a video tape of the service and photographs. It may be painful to look at them right away after the death of your child, however, someday you may want to have it available to you. Consider songs that you would like to have played, poetry read in memory of your child and even having your child baptized, at any age, if you are religious and had not yet done so.
Ideas for a Special Goodbye
- Be careful to choose a special song to eulogize your child. Listen to the words several times and make sure they have meaning to you. Print the words to the song on special paper and hand them out to friends and family at the memorial service.
- Bring a special stuffed animal, toys from siblings, cards and letters from siblings, a special necklace, or anything else you would like to be included in a farewell for your child at any age. Choose special clothing with meaning (perhaps the siblings could assist in choosing) and perhaps a special blanket. For babies, don’t forget booties and perhaps a bonnet or headband. If your child was hospitalized or died as a baby, be sure they have removed your child’s identification bracelet prior to burial for you to keep.
- If you elect to have a spiritual leader or pastor speak at the memorial service, it is a good idea to limit the sermon to 15 minutes maximum. You have permission to ask about the format or outline.
- If at all possible, parents may consider writing a letter to the child. The letter could be read by parents or by a close friend or family member on behalf of the parents. Families can also chose a special poem or two as a eulogy.
- Open casket services are an option in some cases. For baby death, this may help to make an infant more “real” to others. In the case of an older child’s death, it may be an opportunity to say farewell to the physical body.
- Consider spending some time holding and rocking your child prior to the service. Even parents of teens and older children who die can ask to hold his or her hand in the casket.
- Ask others to send stuffed animals or toys instead of flowers. After the services, you can donate to a local charity on behalf of your child (see the Kindness Project). You can print some out and give them to people at the service.
- Make a tape of your own favorite songs so you are not limited to the choice of the funeral home.
- Parents can consider if they want to close the casket for the final time.
- In some instances, family members can ride to the cemetery in the hearse, with the child.
- The family can request to shovel the first dirt. This may be a therapeutic ritual for some. Guests may also take a handful of dirt and sprinkle it onto the grave. You may stay with your child until the cemetery staff have completely buried your child.
- Because of the impact on the environment, we do not recommend a balloon release. Instead, consider lighting candles or blowing bubbles.
- If possible, a ceremony at sundown is beautiful. Consider a graveside unity candlelight service. This is a service where one larger candle is lit, and each person lights their candle off the main unity candle in honor of the child.
We are so sorry – so deeply sorry- that your family is enduring this heartbreak. You are not alone. Please visit our support section to connect with other grieving families. You can also find us here on Facebook or our Selah Carefarm page for our retreat center.
Thanks to Angela Iverson, in memory of Cody, for her assistance on this project.