When death invades a family, there are almost always children who are affected. How to approach the subject of death with them and what to do when death occurs are among two of the most troubling questions faced by family members and educators alike.
Most of our confusion about what to tell the children stems from our confusion about our own beliefs and feelings. A good conversation with another adult about death (threatening as that may sound!) will help you clarify your own attitudes. Then, it is simply a matter of bringing your beliefs down to the level your child, grandchild or acquaintance can understand.
Children are not nearly as fragile as we sometimes think. What they are is inexperienced. If we do not provide them with a safe and honest way to address new experiences — like death – they will piece together their own way of dealing with them, which will have to be un-learned if it is inaccurate. A child who asks "what happened to Grandpa?" deserves an honest response, sensitively presented. And once the facts are presented ("Grandpa’s heart got very old and could not keep his body alive," or "Grandpa died, which means the part of him which we can see and touch is no longer able to do any of the things we do, like..."), that child will guide you with his/her questions. Only listen carefully; like your own questions, what is said may not be exactly what is meant.
Will children be upset by death? Yes. Will children be upset to see you upset by death? Yes. Those reactions are normal and should be nurtured, not thwarted. Attempting to distract from, dismiss or explain away grief and sadness delivers the message that such feelings are wrong. Allowing everyone his/her grief also allows everyone the chance to model comforting behavior.
And should children be taken to a funeral or burial? In general, my answer is yes. As I mentioned above, what you do not show them they will imagine. If they are given the chance to ask questions and participate in the grieving process, they will develop a healthy appreciation of death as part of the cycle of life. Certainly, some circumstances may mitigate this recommendation, including the age and maturity of the child. For the most part, children who can express themselves are capable of dealing with both mourning and comfort.
The child’s doctor is a good person to consult on these matters. Next to parents, nobody knows the heart and soul of a child better than an attentive pediatrician. Let me know if you get advice significantly different than I have offered.