How to tell a young child that his or her friend or playmate has died? Should children attend funerals? These are important and difficult issues to face and hard to answer. Each parent must make a determination based upon their unique knowledge of their child. In general, however, I say that children under the age of ten to twelve may not be able to handle the intensity of a funeral service, especially for a young child. My guess is that most adults would find such an event extremely difficult to handle. Of course if the death is of a close relative or loved one the situation is different. Special accommodations for these situations can involve having an adult, not the parent, be responsible to watching the child for the day and able/willing to take the child away if necessary.
For children who are around the same age as the deceased child or slightly older they certainly need to be told of the death. Then, and this is most important, the parent, grandparent etc. needs to ask the child what this means to them. Asking a child to draw a picture of death or of the deceased friend/relative can give the child the ability to express what is going on internally. Parents need to be willing to sit with the child and also just watch their play after being told the sad news. Since play is a child's way of expressing as well as working things out it can be an important insight into how they process such news.
Children can be asked if they would like to have the parent/grandparent etc. take something to the funeral that comes from the child. They might want to draw a picture, pick a flower. chose a special rock or even a toy to give as a token of love and affection.
Weeks following a funeral it can be beneficial to take a child to the cemetery. At this time the intensity of the death and funeral will have passed and it can then be a time to talk, and listen to what the child understands and thinks.
We want to provide children with tools to deal with intense events and feelings, not to hide or suppress them. Death is difficult but can also bring healing and acceptance.