Should child view the body

Should children view the body of a loved one?

The decision to view the body of a loved one who has died is a very personal choice for adults, and it is the same for children. The important thing is that a child or young person is given the choice and that this is an informed choice – they need to understand what viewing the body will mean.

Parents often worry that children will be left with the image of a person’s body and that it will be scary. Preparation is the key. Often a child’s imagination about what someone will look like after they have died is worse than the reality. If children have clarity they often can manage this very well. It can also help young children to understand the death of a loved one as they are able to see the physical body.

Being left with the image of a person’s body doesn’t have to be a negative thing, and we encourage conversations both about what the person looked like after they died, as well as the conversations about what they were like when they were alive. This balance is important for children to be able to carry the positive memories alongside their grief and loss.

How to prepare children and young people to view the body of a loved one

If your child decides they do want to see the body then there are some important ways you can help to prepare them.

1. Make sure your child has understood that the person has died

It is important for children to have understood that the person has died. If a child is asked “do you want to go and see Uncle Jack?” then they will, of course, say that they do, as they will not understand that it is his body and that he is no longer alive.

If the conversations have already taken place about the person’s body not working anymore and that they have died, it makes the conversation about viewing a body easier for your child to understand.

2. Explain how the person’s body might be different

Explaining that the person’s body may look and feel different is also very important. You could explain that the person’s heart isn’t working anymore, and therefore their blood isn’t being pumped around the body so they will look pale. This also means that their skin will be cold to touch.

Explain that although their eyes will be closed, they are not asleep. Be very clear that when we are alive and go to sleep, our hearts still beat and we still breathe, but the person who has died is no longer breathing and their heart is no longer beating.

3. Describe what they might see

Be clear about how the body might be presented, for example, “Mummy will be lying in a wooden box called a coffin. The lid will be open so we will be able to see her body and she will be dressed in the outfit that you helped to choose”.

Describing the room that the person who has died will be in, is also important. If possible, take them to the room before the body is there so they can get a sense of what it will be like. Speak to the undertakers as often they can accommodate visits to the room beforehand.

4. Make sure they understand it is their decision

Explain that they can stand at the door and look from afar, or they can go close and touch the person – it is their choice. Remind them that they can leave at any moment and that they can change their mind at any point.

Make sure to reassure them that there is no right or wrong way, and if they choose not to go that does not mean that they didn’t love the person who has died. This is especially important when there are siblings, some who want to view the body and some don’t.

Alternative ways to say goodbye

Sometimes, viewing a body is not possible but there can be ways for children to still feel close to the person and to have an opportunity to say goodbye before a cremation or burial. They may like to spend time with the coffin with the lid closed, or sometimes a body can be covered with a sheet. If possible having the person’s hand exposed can give children a way to see part of the person and even hold the hand if they choose.

Coping with coronavirus restrictions around viewing a body

Due to coronavirus, some of this might not be possible at the moment. Communicating with your child is now more important than ever. It is crucial to explain to your child why they cannot go and see the body of the person who has died and why they may not be able to attend the funeral.

It’s still important to talk about the person’s body and where it is being kept and what the person and the place may look like, but that we cannot go because of the current restrictions that are in place. It may be helpful to show a child images of a chapel of rest, or room at a funeral directors. The undertakers themselves may be able to support with this.

You could talk about what you may do as a family when the current restrictions are relaxed. Maybe you could have your own service of remembrance then and you may be able to visit the funeral directors and see the room that the person would have been if you could have visited. This gives your child the opportunity to visualize things and helps to encourage them to have conversations and to ask questions.

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