Viewing the body of someone who has died may feel like a very grown-up thing for a child to do and many adults will understandably have reservations. People have different views or may feel that a child will find it too upsetting.

It can be a particularly difficult decision to make, usually happening at a time when you may be struggling with your own feelings of disbelief and sadness.

The following guidance is based on Child Bereavement UK’s experience of supporting families and can be used to help you make a decision and how to support your child.

Should my child be given the choice to view the body of someone special to them?

Provided they are given a choice and are well prepared, bereaved children we have supported tell us that going to see the body of someone important to them is something that they do not regret doing.

It wouldn’t have made me feel worse. It would have made me feel a lot better to have at least seen her rather than just stare at photos of her.

Christina, aged 10, whose sister was stillborn

With support, a child may decide they would like to view the person’s body as a way of saying goodbye. Viewing a body is just one way of saying goodbye and it may be helpful to share other ways of remembering their special person with them. We also have some creative activities for grieving children which can help a child to remember and talk about their special person.

Some children we have supported say that it helped to put their minds at rest and that, however difficult, it was not as bad as imagined, or as having unanswered questions. For many, it helps them start to understand the reality of what being dead means.

Where someone has died in traumatic circumstances, it may be helpful to have a conversation with hospital staff or your funeral director first for guidance as to what might be possible.

I think I’d rather that my last memory was him going out the door that morning.

Sarah, aged 17

How can I help my child decide whether they would like to view the body of someone who has died?

Be guided by what feels right for you and your child, but it can help to talk things through with someone from outside the family.

It is important that a child is supported to understand that viewing the body of the person who has died is their choice, but that it is not something that they are expected or under pressure to do, or that it is something that will please adults around them.

Even when a child has made the choice to view a body, they may feel unsure. Adults can help by reassuring them that they can change their minds at any point and that this is OK.

Letting your child know that they have options can be helpful. For instance they might decide that they would like to view the body but from a distance, for example from the door. Reassure your child that whatever decision they make is OK.

How should I respond if my child asks where the body of someone who has did is or if they can see them?

When someone close to them has died, a child may feel anxious about the person's body being OK, safe and cared for. Sometimes just knowing where the person is and who is looking after them is all they need. Others may require more pieces of the story filled in for them and may ask to see the body; for some, it is what they need to do in order to make some sense of what has happened.

If your child says they want to view their special person’s body, you might say:

If you would like to see Granny’s body, that is OK. Going to see Granny’s body is one way for you to say your own special goodbye to her. It might help you to understand that Granny really is dead and that she is not going to be here anymore. We are all going to miss her a lot.

You do not have to decide now, but if you think that you would like to do this, I will come with you. Granny’s body is at the funeral home. I will ask the people at the funeral home when we would be able to go. Once we know when that will be, we can chat about it again and see if you would still like to go.

This may be all you need to say at this stage, but more explanation might be needed nearer the time. You might say:

Different people have different feelings when they see a body. You might want to cry, you might not. You don’t have to spend any longer than you want to with Granny’s body.

If you want to, you can take something with you to leave with Granny’s body, perhaps some flowers, or you could draw a picture or write a card if you wanted and take that. What do you think?

How can I prepare my child for viewing the body of someone who has died?

If it is possible, try to organise a preparatory viewing without your child. This will enable you to experience your own initial reactions without having to support your child at the same time. It also means that you will be able to describe to your child exactly what they will experience. Children are better prepared to make the decision that is right for them if they have the information they need.

A child may have a different understanding from an adult of what we mean by the word 'body'. If a young child is asked to draw a 'body' they often produce just a torso. It is therefore essential to ensure the child is aware that when we use this term, we mean an entire body including a head, arms and legs.

If your child chooses to see the body of the person who has died, prepare them as much as possible. Remind them that the body is dead, has no life, is still, and feels nothing.

You might say:

When somebody dies their body stops working. A dead body does not breathe because their lungs are no longer working and the heart has stopped. A dead body cannot move, it will be quiet and still. A dead body cannot feel anything so there will be no pain.

Because a young child under five can find it hard to grasp the difference between being dead and being alive, they may need to be reassured. You might say:

Because their body has stopped working, dead people do not need anything to eat or to drink and they cannot feel the cold. Dead people stay dead forever; much as we might like them to, they cannot come back to life.

It can help them to know where the person's body is, what will be in the room, who will be in the room, what the person's body will look like, what it is covered with, or a description of any clothes the person is dressed in. The body may be in a coffin or it may be laid on a bed, particularly if your child sees the person at home. Whatever they might experience needs to be explained to them beforehand.

You will only see Granny’s body, not anyone else’s. She will be lying in a long box called a coffin. The room will be quiet and only you and I and the man/woman from the funeral home will be there. Granny will look very pale and her eyes will be shut. It will be cool in the room. Granny is dressed in one of her favourite dresses, the one she wore on her birthday.

How can I support my child when they view the body of someone who has died?

Some children might choose to take something such as a small bunch of flowers or a toy or drawing to leave. This can help them to feel that they have contributed with their own special gift.

Just before going in to view, reassure your child that if they have changed their mind, that is perfectly OK. If they decide not to go in and have brought something to leave, say that, if they wish, you will take it in for them.

It is important that you feel comfortable taking your child. It is very understandable if it all feels overwhelming and your child picks up on this. If this is the case, try to find another trusted adult who can stand in for you. Some families go as a group and your child can be a part of this while you remain behind or vice versa.

Should your child be allowed to touch the body of someone who has died?

Touching the body of someone who has died, as long as it is their choice, can help children to understand the concept of being dead, and start to grasp the reality of what has happened. Should they ask to touch the person, children need to know in advance what it will feel like. If their body is badly damaged or disfigured, extra special preparation will be needed and you can speak to hospital staff or the funeral director about what might be possible. You can also call our Helpline for further guidance.

If you want to touch her you can, but you do not have to. She will feel cold and her skin will be very pale. This is because her body isn’t working any more and the blood has stopped pumping round her body.

Adults can show a child that it is OK to touch the body by their behaviour rather than by making a direct suggestion. For instance, if an adult kisses Granny on the cheek, a child observing this will get the message that doing so is OK but will not feel under pressure to do the same.

How can I support my child after they’ve viewed the body of someone who has died?

Be aware that you may be upset after viewing the body of someone who has died, but the child with you may or may not be upset. It is not unusual for a child to seem unaffected; questions and reactions may come later, after they have had time to process their thoughts. Children can only deal with powerful emotions for a short time and they are often able to take time out from overwhelming feelings. We call this ‘puddle jumping’ and it means that they may sometimes appear unaffected when they are not. Watch our short animated film, Puddle Jumping for more information.

Isla was three and a half when her grandmother died.

Isla had lots of questions about why her grandmother couldn’t come back and asked repeatedly to see her in order to say goodbye.

Isla didn’t go in with fear, it seemed to be the most natural thing in the world for her to do. She took a drawing and a favourite photograph for Nanny to keep. She walked into the room and pulled up the little chair that was next to the bed, gently stroked her arms, hair and face and gave her a kiss. She didn’t really say very much to her other than 'I love you', but just spent a little time sitting with her. The chance to make things 'real' seemed to help her process what had happened and understand the finality of her death.

Isla’s mother

Isla’s mother notes, however, that two other children in the family aged 13 and 15 chose not to view their mother's body, saying they wanted to remember her as she was when she was alive.

It is important therefore to allow all children in a family to make their own choices and not to expect them to do what another person has chosen. The key is ensuring that they are doing it because they want to and that they and you are fully prepared beforehand.

I tried not to take my own 'baggage' into the room and was led by Isla. It was a beautiful moment to watch, which was completely unexpected.

Isla’s mother

For guidance on supporting your child to view the body of someone important to them, contact our Helpline

Visit our page: How we can support you for more on our services.

You can also call our Helpline 0800 02 888 40, email [email protected], or use Live Chat on our website.