Death of a parent and support for children

Coffin decorating

Coffin decorating

Thanks to our friends at Winston’s Wish for sharing their thoughts on how to offer a child support around the death of a parent.

Seeing the body

After the death of a parent, if you’re prepared to, let your child make the choice of whether to see the person who has died.

Some things may help them decide:

  • Tell them that they can change their minds – at any time.
  • Check that they are happy with the choice they’ve made – but not too often, because children want to please and may say what they think you want them to say.
  • Give them clear and detailed information about what happens.

Aunt Sue and me and you will drive to the Funeral Directors on the High Street just past the flower shop. There’s a little room with a few chairs where we can sit and wait. You’ll have the chance to change your mind. Then Lesley, the undertaker, will come in. She’s about my age; looks a bit like Auntie Liz. Sue will go in to see dad first then we can go in. I’ll be with you.’

  • Let them know, quite clearly and in detail, what to expect, ideally from you or someone else who has already seen the body.

Your dad is lying in a box – it’s called a coffin – on a table. He’s wearing his favourite jeans and t-shirt. There’s a window high up in the wall behind him and you can see a tree through it.  There’s a smell from a vase of flowers on the table near your dad’s head. He doesn’t look quite like your dad, because he’s pale, he’s completely still and his eyes are closed. That’s because the bit that makes him Jim, brings him alive, isn’t there. It’s just his body. So don’t be surprised if it doesn’t seem to be your dear dad. His skin’s cold too. He may feel a bit hard too, like a statue or a doll. You can touch him. I kissed his forehead which was what I wanted to do but it seemed strange that his skin was cold.’

  • Give them choices about what they do when they enter the room – they can wait by the door, stroke a head or hand, and leave when they want to.
  • Children and young people often appreciate taking something with a special meaning to leave with body, for example, a card they have made, or a shell from a favourite holiday or a picture.

Attending the funeral

After the death of a parent, if you’re prepared to, let your child make the choice of whether to attend the funeral.

Some things may help them decide:

  • Talk to them about what is involved.
  • Let them know that they can change their minds – at any time.
  • Check that they are happy with the choice they’ve made – but not too often, because children want to please and may say what they think you want them to say.
  • Have someone the child feels secure with to act as their supporter for the funeral. This may be an aunt or uncle or one of your best friends. This allows you to be fully present at the funeral for your own sake.
  • Give them clear and detailed information about what will happen; this will involve explanations about the difference between, for example, burials and cremations. If it fits with your own beliefs, it will help if the child has had some preparation about the difference between the body of the person and the part that made them who they were. Some people call this a soul, or a spirit, or love, or ‘what was special about daddy’ or ‘what we will remember about daddy’.
  • Reassure them that it is all of the body of the person who has died that is being buried or cremated. Some younger children are confused and wonder what happens to the head, arms and legs.
  • Give reassurance that the person who has died can no longer feel anything, so they will not feel the flames nor will they be scared at being buried.
  • Offer clear and detailed explanations of what to expect from people at the funeral. Some children can be shocked that people seem to have a party after someone has died; others are upset when people say: ‘How lovely to see you’. Explain that this doesn’t mean that these people are happy that the person has died – they’re just the sort of things that adults say. Equally, seeing adults in deep distress may alarm children but preparation beforehand will help them understand that this is a reasonable response to the huge thing that has happened.
  • Prepare them for some of the things that adults may say to them. For example, boys may be told that they are the ‘man of the house now’ and they will need to know that they are not; this is just an old-fashioned thing some people say.
  • Create opportunities to be involved. This may be in the planning of the funeral service. It may be through saying or reading or writing something about the person who has died. It may be through choosing a particular piece of music. They may wish for something special to be put in the coffin, for example, a picture or something linked to a memory.
  • Give plenty of reassurance that they can still be involved and participate in saying ‘goodbye’ even if they choose not to attend and that they won’t be criticised if they don’t go to the funeral

Alternative ‘goodbyes’

The time immediately after the death of a parent can be traumatic and stressful and often people wish afterwards that they’d done some bits differently or could do something else. You can. It is never too late to hold a memorial or other ceremony for an important person. You could consider linking this to an important date – for example the date of their death, or of the funeral or of their birthday. Children and young people who did not attend the funeral after the death of a parent may appreciate some of the following ideas; they can also be used for marking the anniversary of the person’s death:

  • Visit the grave (if there is one – or other special place e.g. where the ashes were scattered).
  • Visit a place with special memories (e.g. the place where you had your best holiday ever).
  • Create a special place of your own choosing (for example, in the garden of a new house).
  • Visit a place that you went to regularly (for example, the park or the swimming pool) – an everyday rather than a once-in-a-lifetime place.

Some of these ideas may make the occasion special:

  • Hold a small ceremony with specially chosen music, poems and tributes.
  • Bring a picnic of the dead person’s favourite food to share.
  • Prepare something to leave in the ‘special place’ – flowers, a laminated poem, a toy.
  • Release helium-filled balloons to which messages are attached on labels. You could say: ‘If you came back for five minutes, I would …’ or ‘I remember when …’ or ‘My wish for the future is …’
  • Light a candle and share special memories with each other.
  • Start a collection of memories from family and friends of the person who has died. (‘I remember the day Jim got stuck on the school roof after climbing up to get his ball.’)


More information

Winston’s Wish is a charity to support bereaved children. Another useful source of information is Childhood Bereavement Network. They have a very helpful Plan If campaign that encourages sorting your affairs just in case. Our Life Planning Tools can help.

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