Should you ever take children to a funeral? For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it’s more complex; driven by the age or relative emotional maturity of the child, perhaps the circumstances (or closeness) of their loss.
When the answer is “no”, it may be as a result of the well-intentioned desire to protect children from grief, to cushion them from the perceived trauma of witnessing their parents in pain. Or it might simply be because your own emotions are so raw, so overpowering, you can’t see past them to imagine being able to look after someone else’s feelings too.
There is no right or wrong answer – grief is always profoundly personal.
We have yet to see if all of the Queen’s 12 great-grandchildren will attend her funeral, which will be held on Monday 19 September, and marked by a bank holiday – but royal or not, it will be a hard call for their parents. All eyes, no doubt, will be on the new Prince and Princess of Wales, Wills and Kate; Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – and the decision they make.
Prince William and Prince Harry will no doubt remember (and may still be significantly affected by) their memories of their mother’s funeral – as are the rest of us. The images of the two young princes forced into the spotlight as they joined the procession for Diana, Princess of Wales divided the nation. And they’ll haunt us forever.
I went to a funeral last week and had asked if the deceased’s grandchildren might be there. Their mother, completely understandably, said no – she felt that for under-10s the experience would be “too hard” and “too sad”; for both the elder members of the family giving the eulogy and the kids themselves.
Another close friend who’s experienced recent grief said she felt conflicted about the idea of taking her very young children, who are similar ages to Prince George and Prince Louis, to a burial – and she reminded me how hard it can be to talk about death with someone small, for whom the concept is surreal, unimaginable.
“Mine are struggling to handle the idea of death at the moment,” she said. “They’ve taken this bereavement very badly. The thing they seemed most disconcerted by was my sadness – they’ve seen me cry before but not like this.
“They’ve seemed out of sorts since the news and don’t seem to understand how to react. Sometimes they’re smiling and laughing, other times they’re saying how sad they are and what they remember about the person. When I first told my youngest, she was angry with me – she told me I shouldn’t have told her.
“Since then, they’ve both made paintings for the family; completely off their own backs. My eldest keeps asking me if I’m OK and if I’m sad. I’m pleased they saw me cry and know that it’s OK for big people to have feelings too. I think it helps to validate them feeling sad and openly crying to see me doing the same. It’s been really interesting to see how they’ve responded to it.”
I also have kids of a similar age to the littlest royals – I wrote recently about Prince Louis’s first day at his new school when he refused to hold his father’s hand. When my daughter’s great-grandmother died (the pair were four generations apart, yet the best of friends; they even shared the same name) she asked if she could come to the funeral.
She was six and I did ponder whether or not it would be “appropriate” but in the end, decided to trust my child. If she wanted to go, I wanted her to be there – and I knew her great-grandmother would have loved the idea. She watched the coffin being carried in and she was fascinated: “Where are they taking her now? What will happen next?”
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Four years later, she grieves openly still. She keeps a photo of her great-grandmother in her bedroom and will occasionally start crying out of the blue – when I ask why, she tells me it’s because she misses her. She made such a profound impact on her life that I’m glad she was able to be part of the process – the funeral and mourning too. It might not be the decision all parents take, but it was the right one for my child.
And that’s what is most important here, and can’t possibly be judged or berated: we will see whether or not Wills and Kate decide to let Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis attend the memorial for the Queen, and whether Harry and Meghan think it’s right for Prince Archie and Princess Lilibet to be there too; not to mention the Queen’s seven other great-grandchildren: Sienna, Savannah, Mia, August, Isla, Lena and Lucas.
Whether they do or don’t, it will be the right thing to do.
The royal family may be worlds apart from the rest of us in terms of wealth and ceremonial duty, but they’re still human. They’re people. They hurt and they mourn and they grieve and they love and they rage and they question and they remember and they deserve the chance for closure and to say goodbye, if they want to – or to process it in private – just like the rest of us. There is no wrong decision, here.