Discussing Death With Children
by Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler, Jewish Center of Teaneck, Teaneck, NJ
If there are any" rules" for talking with children about death, they may be summarized as follows:
1. Always tell your child the truth or as much of the truth as possible, rather than something fanciful that he or she will have to unlearn at a later date. At the same time, do not let the popular emphasis on demythologizing death inhibit you from talking to your child in terms of the numerous beautiful, traditional Jewish beliefs about death.
Here's where Judaism differs and has an advantage over some other cultures and traditions. For the Jew, there is a reality beyond death, and life after death;
and we needn't spare our children such beliefs. Telling a child younger than seven years old that a deceased loved one is "with God" is both true and comforting, as long as one is careful about relating potentially confusing notions; i.e. "grandfather is living with God" when you have already told your child that grandfather is no longer living.
2. Never equate death with sleeping (although you might say that a dead person looks like he's sleeping) or with taking a short trip. With younger children, such explanations will likely make them fear going to sleep or going on trips.
3. Make it very clear that a person's death is not the child's fault. In general, stay clear of the idea of "death is punishment" until children are mature enough to comprehend the meaning of this possibility and the theological belief known as "reward and punishment."
4. Be prepared to calmly meet a child's emotional outbursts or denials of what you are saying. Repetition is preferable to forcing the issue. And take the child's needs and concerns seriously. A child wants to be heard in his moment of grief, his moment of difficulty. And it's important for the child to be validated by sensing that his parent or loved one is listening to his anguish.
5. Do not feel that you must be scientifically complete and theologically precise in whatever explanations you offer to a child concerning death. This will often overwhelm an unprepared child if a parent attempts to be too studied or professional in the approach, or too fact-laden. Actually, children are surprisingly comfortable with parents who can honestly answer "I don't know." They can appreciate ambiguity as long as it's conveyed in a real sense with a genuine tone. On the other hand, it is often useful to respond to a child's question by saying reflectively, "What do you think?" This will allow you to glimpse the fascinating world of your child's thinking and sense the expression and affect of the child at that point in time. A parent can also relate the sameness of feeling that they are experiencing, and draw parallels between their feelings and those of their children. For instance, when a child notices that a parent has a torn garment because of the ritual of keriah when one passes on, the child might also want to tear a garment. While this is not done, at least validating the child's need or desire to have a similar expression can be very helpful.
6. Pay attention to signs from your child that his or her interest in the topic is waning. One must be careful of overkill and not become too somber and too morose or macabre with a child. There are times when a child wants to take a break from this discussion. Allow the child to come back at a time and place when the child will be comfortable renewing discussion on this matter. Indicate to the child that "it is hard to talk a lot about some things all at once" and that "we could always talk about it again when it interests you.”
7. When a child shows unease or exceptional preoccupation with death, such as demonstrated in his talk, his play or sometimes in his conspicuous lack of interest in a death which has just occurred to a loved one, it is important to attempt to help the child express himself. A first step is to let the child know that there is nothing shameful about being afraid of death or being afraid to talk about death; and that talking about it with someone usually makes us feel a little bit better. Sometimes, engaging the child in play where the parent utilizes toy animals or dolls to reenact some of the events related to the death of a loved one, will help a child to be more comfortable in expressing some of his or her feelings. Other times, it may be necessary to put into words some of the fears and worries you believe the child to have, but only if you are quite sure of what the child is really thinking or feeling. Children appreciate art as a medium of expression as well, and pictures can vividly capture the sentiments felt by the child. If the problem persists and the child appears to be consistently unhappy and withdrawn, or otherwise different from his or her usual self, it may be advisable at that point to consult with a social worker or a psychologist/therapist or rabbi experienced in these areas.
8. Remember that most children have little difficulty assimilating the concept of death, as long as they are patiently allowed to work with the idea and master their own worries and concerns at their own pace. I believe that we give children less credit than they actually deserve for their ability to assimilate and appreciate these realities of life. Children are aware of their environment and their surroundings, and can be more astute than we are prepared to acknowledge. Children have a certain durability that we need to give them proper credit for. They can actually handle more than we are prepared to admit, i.e. hospital visits, funerals, even cemetery visitation. Each child, of course, is different, and has to be appreciated and approached on the level at which he is at. With regards to children attending funeral services, I have found that for many children it is both a very useful and cathartic experience that they will carry with them in a meaningful manner for the rest of their lives, knowing that they have had a chance to pay their respects. If the child, however, resists, the child need not be forced to attend a service. Cemetery visitation is another matter, but again each child should be taught and approached according to his or her way. I found from personal experience on the few occasions when I have taken my son to the cemetery, that there is a great deal of learning and appreciation that he has had for life, and reverence for one's remains. We had a chance to explain some of the symbols, including the place of the stone on a monument to indicate that one has visited the site and wants to communicate a sense of nearness. Visitation to a shiva house can also be very instructive, if children can be taught in a tangible way what it means to offer consolation, and can also see the various rituals and see the structure that Judaism gives (i.e. at the end of shiva, walking around the block with the family, the prayer for Nichum Aveilim (comforting the mourners).
9. Where Judaism differs and perhaps can be more beneficial in the disarray that accompanies death, is in the various rituals that it offers that give us structure and a focus to this experience of grief. Whereas other faith communities and our general American culture usually places us back in the mainstream sooner than what we are probably ready for, Judaism requires through shiva a period of withdrawal during which families can bond together and feel a sense of community from the well-wishers who visit them. In the case of a child who has suffered the loss of a parent, shiva allows the child to feel the nearness of the surviving parent and other relatives and can be very comforting knowing that the child has some sense of psychological and parental moorings, even in the aftermath of such a grievous loss.
10. Giving a child a tangible object or artifact from the relative that they have lost, something that they can actually use and hold on to as a legacy and as an heirloom, can be very helpful, i.e. in the case of a grandparent or an uncle or aunt.