BLOOMFIELD, NJ — A funeral home is not ordinarily a place one would expect to find a children’s playroom. But Bloomfield resident and certified child-life specialist Angie Koeneker says a room for a child to express their loss should be in every funeral home.
Koeneker, who spoke at Van Tassel’s Funeral Home on Saturday, Aug. 13, said children express their feelings through play but there are no playrooms in nearly all the funeral homes she has visited.
“You can tell what questions a child has by watching them play,” Koeneker said. “What better place to have playroom than a funeral home? It’s so unfamiliar to children.”
Koeneker has a master’s degree in child-life studies from Illinois State University. She has been a child-life specialist for 15 years and has worked in children’s hospitals. Ordinarily, a child-life specialist is first introduced in a hospital to the child losing a sibling or facing their own death. Having a child-life specialist on staff is common practice, she said. And a playroom with a dollhouse and toy figures is a natural place for children to express themselves. Koeneker said a child may speak to a toy figure and tell them, “You’re too sick, you can’t play.” Or, if the child plays with a set of toy figures, they may remove one figure out and place it away from whatever the other figures are imagined to be doing.
But it is not just end-of-life experiences that puts Koeneker in contact with children. It can be a medical procedure. If a child is having surgery, Koeneker will tell them what they can expect to see, hear and feel.
“I explain to the child what is happening by using developmentally-sensitive language,” she said.
Koeneker works with children from 3 to 18 years old. Frequently, the younger children have already been told by their parents what is happening before Koeneker is introduced to them.
An important means of having children express their concerns is through art. Koeneker will provide creative activities, using paper and markers, for example, to have children and their parents express themselves, writing letters or drawing pictures.
“I help families to come up with activities for younger children,” Koeneker said. “With the older children, there is more discussion.”
The goal of the activities is to open up a communications pathway between parent and child, to put the parent in a position where they can speak to their child about loss and fear, Koeneker said. But it is up to the child how and when they want to express themselves or if they want to attend a funeral home.
“Children should be given the choice of going to a funeral service,” Koeneker said. “And there should be a support person to take the child away.”
The support person must also be prepared. Koeneker will advise this person on what to do if the child should be removed.
“It can be just as simple as providing paper and markers,” she said.
Children should also be given the opportunity to put pictures or letters in a casket, it they want to, Koeneker said.
The owner of Van Tassel’s Funeral Home, Izabel Van Tassel, who provides a playroom, agreed with Koeneker about the lack of playrooms. Van Tassel said, with children, you have to clean up afterward and funeral establishments do not want the bother.
“People are so involved with the funeral,” Van Tassel said, “and the children are set aside. It’s not explained but they know someone died.”
Koeneker said she will continue to assist families after the funeral but most of her work is done by then.
“I’m certainly amazed at the resilience of children and their families,” Koeneker said. “It’s been an honor to be a part of families when they face such a difficult time and parents allow you to enter their space.”