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How to Talk to Your Kids about Death

Scenes of children in mourning dominate the news these days, whether the children are at the Jewish Community Center in California, Littleton, Colorado or in Dili. They raise the topic of death, a difficult subject, yet one that we must discuss with our children.

It is a sacred commandment in Judaism to comfort mourners, young and old. There is solace and security for children in the knowledge that centuries of tradition lie behind the rituals their parents and grandparents practiced before them. The Jewish faith recognizes children's confused emotions at a time of great sorrow and helps them through their grief to ease slowly back into the rhythm of life.

The basic themes in Jewish morning rites are Kevod ha-met, respect for the person who died, and Kevod ha-chai, respect for those who survive. Solomon ben Isaac (known as Rashi), an eleventh-century commentator on the Bible, explains the origins of Kevod ha-met. In Genesis 4:27, the elderly Patriarach Jacob asked his son, Joseph, to arrange a burial for him in the land of Israel. Joseph's fulfillment of this request, this act of caring for the dead (Kevod ha-met), was the greatest display of kindness because there is no anticipation of reward. In the Ethics of The Fathers (1:3), Antigonos of Socho writes, "Be like servants who serve the Masters without the expectation of receiving a reward." Similarly, there is an entire section of the Talmud (semachot) in which God comforts and consoles those in the midst of suffering and despair, illustrating the dictate of Kevod ha-chai, respect for the mourners.

Many of the traditional customs pertaining to death are presented in the Code of Jewish Law (Schulchan Aruch) prepared by Joseph Caro in 1565 in Venice. Yet there are wide variations and practices within Jewish life.

Death, a universal and inevitable process, is faced by people of all ages. Children who are able to mourn with their families after the death of a loved one will be better equipped to understand and manage the emotions of their grief. It is in that spirit that I present the following points for helping young people.

"To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens: A time to be born, and a time to die."
Ecclesiastes 3:1.2

DO NOT avoid the subject of death in the home, the school, or synagogue. One of the most difficult tasks following the loss of a loved one is discussing that death with children. The problem is intensified when adults are in the midst of their own grief.

Since the subject matter is so sensitive, the first discussion should ideally take place before a death occurs and should not directly concern the eventual death of a specific person close to the child. Don't begin by asking, "Have you ever thought about what you will do when I die?" Such an introduction rocks the security of both the adult and the child. Similarly, do not couch your explanation in terms of a dogma, belief, or a theology that is difficult for children to understand. Children easily misunderstand abstract concepts and reach erroneous conclusions.

Rather, talking about natural processes is a good way to introduce the concept of death. Change and growth occur each day--from larva to butterfly, from tadpole to frog. New leaves replace the old ones that die. A living tree produces seeds so that life may continue. Point out the diverse forms, shapes, and colors of nature, such as bugs, slugs, and butterflies. When they are alive, they move. After they die, they are quiet and still.

Alternatively, an experience such as the death of a pet or witnessing death on television is a good springboard into a discussion about how animals live and die and its accompanying sadness. You should emphasize that, while separation is sad and painful, it is an essential part of life and nature.

Children are confronted with the reality of death each day in the news, on TV and on the radio, in words or in songs. It is not a question of whether they should have death education. The question is how families and synagogues will provide it. When a loved one dies, good mental health requires not the denial of tragedy, but the frank acknowledgment of painful separation.

DO NOT Discourage the emotions of children's grief.

Grief is an emotion, not a disease. It is as natural as crying when hurt, eating when hungry, sleeping when weary. Grief is nature's way of healing a broken heart.

Children undergo many emotional reactions to death, as do mature adults. They have needs that must not be overlooked and feelings that must be fully expressed. Repressed emotions lead to further distress and even mental illness. It is vital that those painful sentiments be expressed when first experienced.

A Yiddish proverb tells us "Not to have had pain is not to have been human."

DO NOT Tell youngsters something that they will need to unlearn.

Fairy tales and half-truths are not proper explanations for the mystery of death. Never cover up with a fiction or a confusing interpretation what you will someday repudiate. For example, to say "Your daddy has gone away on a long journey" is to give the impression that he may someday return. Similarly, to say "God took your young mother because God needs good people" is contrary to Jewish theology as seen in Book of Job. Good people do die young; so do evil people. Unhealthy explanations can create fear, doubt, and guilt, and encourage flights of fancy that are far more bizarre than reality. There is no greater need for children than trust and truth.

DO NOT Place unnecessary burdens upon youngsters.

The living child cannot replace the dead sibling. When a parent dies, a youngster does not suddenly become the "man" or "woman" of the house. Children should be encouraged to be with their friends and to assume their usual activities.

DO NOT Avoid talking about the person who died.

The child needs to talk, not just to be talked to. Be willing to listen! If only given the opportunity, many youngsters have an insatiable need to pour out their feelings. Ask questions such as, "What are you thinking about now?" "What frightens you?" "What would you like to do together?" Recall not only the sad moment of death but the wonderful shared memories of when the loved one was alive.

DO Express your own emotions of grief.

If you repress your feelings, your children are more likely to hold their own emotions at bay. Children receive permission to mourn from adults. Rabbi Joshua Liebman in his book, Peace of Mind, wrote, "A child can stand tears but not treachery; sorrow but not deceit." To be able to show grief openly and to mourn without fear or embarrassment helps both children and parents to accept the naturalness and pain of death. Denial, numbness, anger, tears, and despair are normal reactions to the loss of a loved one for people of all ages.

DO Be honest about your own limitations.

You do not diminish yourself in your children's estimation when you tell them you do not have all the answers. They probably realized this a long time ago. Adults are not all-powerful and all-knowing. You demonstrate maturity when you display honest uncertainty. It is far healthier for you and your children to seek understanding together rather than to attempt to protect parental authority with glib half-truths, evasions, and omniscience.

Don't be didactic; leave the door open. You might help the child struggle with the problem by saying, "Lots of people think about death in different ways. But no one has the final answers. Tell me what you think. . ."

Your children will both challenge and help you. In your quest to find answers for them, you may discover explanations for yourself. Their honest and direct doubts may compel you to come to terms with your own thoughts and feelings. Not all questions have final answers. Unanswered problems are part of life.

DO Encourage a child to participate in his/her family's sorrow.

Children, too, need to express their emotions through the ceremonies of death-the visitation, the funeral, the "shiva," the burial. They should be told that a funeral is a significant occasion to say good-bye, "Shalom," to one who died. Explain the funeral arrangements and the meaning of our age-hallowed rituals and traditions.

No matter how helpful and therapeutic the funeral might be, children should not be forced to attend. If apprehensive youngsters elect to remain at home, don't place any "shaming" pressures upon them or insinuate that they did not love the person who died. Gently suggest that together you might visit the cemetery at another time. Be sensitive to the age, level, and needs of each child.

DO Make referrals to other supportive people.

There are many times when even the best intentions of an adult are simply inadequate. Professional help might be considered when after many months a child continues to:

  • Look sad all the time with prolonged depression.
  • Keep a fast pace and cannot relax the way he used to with you and their friends.
  • Not care about how he dresses and looks.
  • Seem tired, or unable to sleep, with her health suffering markedly.
  • Avoid social activities and wish to be alone more and more.
  • Be indifferent to school and hobbies she once enjoyed.
  • Feel worthless and engage in bitter self-incrimination.
  • Rely on drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Let their moods control them instead of controlling their moods. Seeking further help from a rabbi, guidance counselor, a school psychologist or a mental health facility is not an admission of weakness. To the contrary, it is a demonstration of courageous resolve to seek assistance during difficult times.

DO Explain that the sorrow of death continues past the yahrzeit i.e., anniversary of death.

Judaism does attempt to limit mourning to the given periods of traditional observance. That is why the Psalmist said: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." The important words are WALK THROUGH. You can not remain in perpetual grief. Death, "the loss of innocence," can either lead you to the edge of the abyss and threaten your existence with meaninglessness and futility; or help you and your children start to build a bridge that spans the chasm with those things of life that still count--memory, family, friendship, love. Whatever your concept of a hereafter for your beloved, Judaism requires that you strive to find purpose in this world. When you have sorted out your own feelings, you will be better able to understand your troubled children who come to you filled with questions and beset with fears. The real challenge is not just to explain death to your children but how to make peace with it yourself.


Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "time of [one] year," referring to the anniversary of the day of a relative's death. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "seven," refers to the seven days of mourning following the funeral of a family member.
Rabbi Earl A. Grollman

Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, D.H.L., D.D., a past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, was honored with the Distinguished Service Award from Yeshiva University and an honorary degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for his pioneering work in the world of crisis intervention. Among his 20-six books are Talking About Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child (Beacon Press) which won the UNESCO award and Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers (Beacon Press).

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