The Toddler at the Funeral
My 93 year old grandmother has suffered what will be eventually a fatal stroke. She is being treated now by hospice for comfort cares, but her days are estimated to be less than a week. I personally am grieving, but resigned, as her health has been precarious for several years prior. I work in the healthcare field so this situation is familiar to me professionally, and I find I’m dealing with things by keeping it professional.
The catch is, my grandma, and her funeral, are at least six hours away from me. And I have a 2 year old. Her only great grandchild. So I know she has to “make an appearance” at the visitation, but what do I do for the service, since my husband is a pallbearer, and I’m the eldest grandchild. And assuming she passes (Good Lord I hate typing this, but on schedule, because a week later my DH will be on a plane to a work conference and I will be soloing this) We don’t have local babysitting resources, aside from my SIL, assuming they are back from the European vacation, but (I’M NOT making this up, on my honor) their phones were stolen out of their safe so we can’t even tell them Grandma’s unwell. (Seriously, could produce police reports and have had OMG comedy moments.)
So what is the protocol for toddlers and funerals? I would have my DH take her back to the hotel, but he’s a pall bearer and I’m just torn. And grieving.
I’m so sorry about your Grandma. I’m so sorry that short sentence is so inadequate in light of what you’re facing.
But let’s see if we can compartmentalize all the feels for a few minutes and focus on the logistics. Which can either feel MASSIVELY OVERWHELMING or OH GOD THE SWEET EMOTIONAL ESCAPE OF PRACTICALITY, depending on your stage of grief.
I attended two funerals during my last pregnancy, when my older boys were 5 and 2, respectively. My husband’s grandmother died and a service and reception were both held at the assisted living facility where she lived and ultimately passed. My in-laws encouraged us to bring the boys to both, billing the service as more of informal memorial gathering and told us that the boys’ presence would be a welcome distraction for the extended family.
This all sounded good in theory, only once we arrived it was clear that the “informal memorial gathering” was more like a “quiet, solemn and structured church service.” There were hymns and “let us prays” and everything I’d brought to entertain my children (my phone sans headphones, crunchy wrapped snacks and candy, a stupidly unopened new blister package of Hot Wheels, etc.) was suddenly TERRIBLY LOUD AND INAPPROPRIATE. My children simply weren’t capable of sitting there quietly, and even in the back row I could sense we would eventually be a disruption once their patience with snacks and Hot Wheels ran out.
I ended up leaving the service and hiding out in a small room down the hall, playing YouTube clips of Dora the Explorer until the reception, which was indeed just the sort of informal family gathering that we’d been expecting.
Lesson learned: My kids are lousy at funeral services.
When my father passed a few months later, the burial was a military service with extremely limited seating, so it was mostly just immediate family and my parents’ dearest friends. My in-laws graciously agreed to skip the burial (even though they were extremely close to my father as well) and watch the boys (and my nephew) so we could all attend and focus on my mother, whose grief was loud and visible and probably would have been very upsetting for the kids to witness. (Not to mention the gunfire salute would have caused them to lose.their.shit.) My in-laws arrived with the boys at the wake, which by design had much more of a celebration/party vibe than the graveside service. The boys were adorable and funny and charming and their presence indeed cheered everybody up.
Lesson learned: My kids are awesome at post-funeral receptions.
A few questions to consider when faced with a funeral/reception scenario and small children:
1) What kind of funeral are we talking about here? A memorial service? Something with a casket? Open casket? A long sermon? A couple toast-like speeches and a favorite hymn? Military salute? I know in your case it might be difficult to get details yet as things might not be planned, but if possible, inquire about Grandma’s wishes so you can figure out stuff like service length, venue and noise level.
2) Is your child comfortable sitting still and quiet for a length of time? If she regularly attends and sits through church services, for example, it’s entirely possible that she’ll be just fine at a funeral with some crayons, scrap paper and a hymnal. For other kids this is just asking too much of them and you’ll just end up out in the lobby anyway, possibly after an embarrassing outburst. If you just aren’t sure and don’t feel like turning THIS into an experimental run-through, that is completely understandable (and I’ll run though some options in a bit).
3) Who’s attending? Close family is likely to be very tolerant/understanding of a young toddler’s unpredictability, but if the crowd is full of people you don’t know, they might find the sight of a child wearing headphones and playing Angry Birds during a traditional funeral service disrespectful.
4) Is there any possibility the service will be upsetting to your child? An open casket or a room full of visibly distraught and grieving adults can be scary, especially for a young child who is working through their first experience with death. For a toddler, however, it’s really unlikely she’ll be able to grasp anything that’s going on. (My boys still seem to think great-grandma’s funeral was just her birthday party.) This is a double-edged sword, however, because she also won’t be able to grasp why she’s expected to sit still and quiet and not run around and touch things.
Personally, I would probably not take a 2 year old to any sort of formal funeral service. Receptions? Yes. Rock on. Your daughter will likely be a welcome slice of bittersweet happiness. For the service, I would look harder for a local babysitting option. Your hotel, for example, can probably provide a nanny service recommendation for in-room sitting for you. I’ve used these babysitting services and they have always been excellent, so don’t fear them, especially for just an hour or so of in-room supervision. Then you and your husband can attend the service, swing back to the hotel, pay the nanny and head to the reception with your daughter.
If your hotel doesn’t have a nanny service to recommend, try contacting the funeral director or officiant, as I’m sure they are familiar with your situation. A pastor might know a tween/teen in the church who you could pay a few bucks to just hang out with your daughter in the lobby or (if the funeral is at the church) take her to play with the toys in the church nursery. A funeral director might be able to offer another staff member who can keep her amused nearby while you and your husband fulfill your duties. If you know who is supervising the invite list, reach out and explain your dilemma. Maybe there’s another funeral attendee with children who either plans to book a sitter you can share, or who plans to camp out elsewhere while his/her spouse/partner stays for the actual service, and can be tasked with adding your daughter to the group. Or someone who just doesn’t really “do” funerals very well and will welcome a kid-based distraction. (Note to self: volunteer free babysitting services at any and all future hypothetical funerals.) Maybe there’s a next-door neighbor or friend-of-a-friend’s teenage daughter who can help.
Honestly, if the loss of my father taught me anything, it’s that PEOPLE WANT TO HELP. For real: One of the hospice nurses offered to babysit both of my boys ON HER DAY OFF if it meant I could stay with my mom and dad for just a little longer, until he was officially gone.
It can be very hard at this stage of grieving — the “keeping it together and professional and I AM FINE FINE FINE” stage — to ask for help. But it’s good and okay to ask for help, even if in the end, it’s just asking your fellow mourners to have a heart and turn a blind eye to typical toddler behavior. You have enough to deal with a process right now; staying up nights worried about a 2 year old melting down/whining/crying/needing a change/being generally inappropriate during your grandmother’s funeral should not be one of those things.Published October 14, 2013. Last updated October 14, 2013.