Dilemmas: Finding a friend in death

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Cathy had asked: 'Could a small child cope with a funeral?' While her three-year-old daughter wanted not only to attend the funeral of her grandmother, but also to view the body, Cathy's husband and in-laws were shocked at the idea, arguing that the child would be too upset.

But, according to Jean Pain of Tunbridge Wells, the question should have been posed differently. It should have run: 'Could a child cope if she couldn't go to the funeral of a much- loved relative?'

Scores of readers wrote in, many still smarting from being denied the chance when they were young to attend the funeral of a close relation.

Mollie Troy of York, at eight, was not allowed to go her grandfather's funeral. 'It instilled in me a dread of funerals, at which I imagined all sorts of mysterious and unspeakable things went on,' she wrote.

And Mary Rich of Newbury, whose father died when she was 12, was forbidden to see him in death or attend his funeral. 'For almost 50 years I experienced dreams in which it appeared that my father had not died, but lived a limbo existence, imprisoned or ill, as if my subconscious could not accept the truth.'

Moir Leslie of Twickenham was six when her father died. 'He was ill one day and I was sent on a holiday for two weeks to friends. When I returned, my father was gone and I was told that he was with God. Oh well, I thought, he'll be home soon.

'It took four years for me to fully realise the truth, that he was never coming back, that he was dead. My overwhelming emotion was anger that I had been lied to and not allowed to mourn and share grief with my mother and those closest to him.'

Most children cope better with funerals than adults. As Gerard Lee of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear, said: 'Sometimes the concern that adults have about a child's reaction has more to do with their own struggle with the various emotions brought on by the death of someone very close.'

In fact, children can be a great source of comfort to adults at a funeral, and a welcome sign that life goes on. They can contribute, too, like Sara Ansah of Hackney's seven-year-old who attended his grandfather's funeral.

'He was obviously proud and pleased to be part of the proceedings, very grown-up in his unusually smart clothes and riding behind the hearse in a large black stretch car. He joined in singing the hymn, which he had willingly practiced before, without prompting, and chose to throw a handful of dirt after the coffin.

'Afterwards he said: 'It wasn't scary and I loved my grandad and he loved me, so I was very pleased to be there and wouldn't have liked not to have been.' '

The idea of seeing the body, however, brought mixed feelings. Laura King of Coventry was all for it. 'What people often fail to realise is that it can actually be comforting for a child to see there is no longer anyone in their loved ones' bodies and that it is just like an 'overcoat' granny left behind when she went to live with God,' she wrote.

And William Mathieson of Weston-super-Mare, who grew up in Liverpool in the Twenties and Thirties when the mortality rate among children was high, said that then 'it was common practice to lay out the bodies of children and adults in the front parlour. The front door of the house was left open and children and neighbours were free to go in at any time to view the corpse.

'I cannot recall any schoolchild being upset by this practice.'

However, Wendi Harmer of Cambridge, was very affected when, at six, her father insisted that his children should see their grandfather for the last time.

'The morbid image remained with me throughout my childhood, inducing nightmares and a fear of dying. Frequently I would wake up in the night afraid that my mother had died, and would have to go and reassure myself that she was still alive. Other nightmares would involve myself being buried alive and fighting to get out of a buried coffin.'

Perhaps Cathy might reach a compromise by taking her daughter to the funeral, but not to the undertaker's viewing-room. Anyway, undertakers have a habit of combing dead people's hair in a weird way or making them up to look different from how they did in life, so, if she does take her daughter, it would be wise for her to pop in to have a quick peek first. But even the clergy, in general, were keen on children being present at the actual service, although Canon FG Hunter and his wife Faith, of York, made two important provisos. 'One is that the children clearly want to take part in all or some of the ceremonies - they must not feel that they are obliged to do so for the sake of others. The other is that adequate explanations be given of what is going to happen before and after the services. 'Four men in grey suits will come and take grandad in a wooden box - grandad will be put into a hole in the ground and the minister will say some prayers . . . .' '

Rev Robert Harrison, of London, NW2, emphasised that as a funeral is an important family occasion, 'it is good for all the family to be there.'

But I think the wisest owl of all was Kevin Swift of Bolton. 'Our job is to give children the love, self-confidence and security they need to take on as much reality as they can manage,' he wrote. 'Death is an unavoidable part of this reality. It should be befriended as soon as possible.'

WHAT DO i TELL MUM?

Dear Virginia,

I was adopted as a baby into a family I love very much. After a lengthy search I found my birth mother, because I wanted to know my roots and see what she was like. I didn't want it to go further than that.

However, my birth mother is over the moon that I've found her. I wouldn't mind a casual friendship, but she rings daily and wants me to call her 'mummy' and to visit all the time. Quite honestly, I feel I have a loving family of my own and don't need another one. I'm beginning to wish I'd not looked for my birth mother.

My husband thinks I should be straight with her, but I feel guilty to think I might be taking away her chance to make up for the past. What should I do?

Yours sincerely,

Ella

All readers' comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted in the column will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate.

Please send your comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956 1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas that you would like to share with readers, let me know.

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