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11 Questions and Answers to Help You Talk to Children About Death

Describing death and helping children cope

It can feel overwhelming and scary to talk to children about death. It can be painful, and we may worry about saying the wrong thing. Yet, talking to children about death is important and can’t be avoided. Here are 11 questions and answers to help you with these conversations.

1. When is it best to talk to children about death?

There is no “right” age to first talk about death with a child. Although it is difficult to talk about hard topics like death at any age, there is never only one conversation about the topic. Children will have different kinds of questions about death as they grow and mature, so they likely will raise the topic with new questions or thoughts at different stages. Beginning to talk about death when children are young teaches them  that death is part of life and is okay to discuss.

Sometimes we have no choice but to discuss death for the first time when a child experiences a loss firsthand. In general, it is easier for both child and parent when the loss is a distant relative, neighbor, pet, or even a character in a television show, movie, or book. It becomes more complex when the loss is a deeply cherished person -- a parent, grandparent, or sibling.

Every Jewish worship service includes the Kaddish, a prayer recited to honor the memory of a loved one, which praises God as a reminder that although we mourn and experience sadness, life is good and love and joy can be ours again. The Kaddish is a sensitive way to begin a conversation about death, as it is a time to remember and honor those who have died. Making a visit during shiva (the seven-day period following a funeral during which friends and family visit the mourners to share memories) to console the bereaved is considered a central obligation of Jewish life – and another opportunity to teach children about death, as well as raise awareness in school-aged children and adolescents that their parents and grandparents are fulfilling this religious obligation. When appropriate, children can accompany parents to visit a classmate or relative who has experienced a loss.

2. Why raise the subject when no one close has died? Won’t that just make childrenanxious unnecessarily?

Inevitably, every child will face the death of someone cherished. When a child’s caretakers are also bereaved, they have far less wherewithal to respond calmly, patiently, or thoughtfully. It is better to discuss the painful reality of death when the feelings it evokes are not so personal or powerful. Our tradition emphasizes life but does not shy away from acknowledging the mystery and sadness of death. By acknowledging death, we learn to cherish our time together, to be comforting to one another, and to do everything possible to safeguard life. Judaism urges us not to be afraid of death but to trust in the goodness of life and the sense that death is a time of peace, not one of punishment or exile.

3. What if my child sees my tears, worry, and anger when someone has died?

It is important and natural to acknowledge that we are sad, angry, and hurt over the loss. We can assure children that we are not angry with them, even if we seem impatient and short-tempered.  Rather, we are upset with the situation. It is helpful to enlist the help of relatives, friends, clergy, and neighbors who are not deeply mourning and who can interpret the surviving relatives’ behavior and emotions for children. Jewish mourning customs, including the funeral and shiva, acknowledge death as a time of loss and sadness for the survivors, but there is also an expectation that in time, the sorrow will ease and that human beings and spiritual traditions can help the bereaved to heal. Understanding and observing reactions to death, bereavement, and healing, reminds children of the values of love, attachment, and capacity to help bear difficult feelings, as well as the power of healing and recovery.

4. What should I actually tell my child about death?

Children need help to understand that death is not as it is portrayed in games or cartoons and that people do not pop back to life moments later. Neither is it like sleep. Death is final and irrevocable. The dead person does not breathe or move. There is no more hurt and no more pain, but there is no more life either. Death can be explained by reminding children of memories of dead birds or bugs – a stillness that is permanent. This concept is difficult to describe, especially if the person is describing someone they loved. If such a conversation occurs at the time of bereavement, the help of others can be important.

5. Why the need to speak of finality?

The answers vary based upon children’s ages and our own personal beliefs. Younger children might believe that a person can be dead and then “un-dead.” As hard as it is to expose children to emotional pain, it is a reality they eventually will have to face. Telling children that a grandparent or parent has gone on a long trip may seem kind, but ultimately creates unrealistic hope and prevents them from giving vent to their true feelings. We often are not honest with children when talking about death because it is so painful not to be able to protect them and to manage their distress, but they need our truthfulness to master the realities. Statements that confuse death and long trips will, in the long run, confound separation problems because children may come to fear that those who go on long trips will never return.

6. What about saying the person who was died has gone to heaven? Doesn’t Judaism allow for the possibility of eternal life?

It is important to make a distinction between heaven and earth – the notion of an afterlife and the physical togetherness that is experienced before death. Even those of us who have doubts or disbelief in an after-life need to be sensitive and allow for hope. After all, we don’t know for sure, and such thoughts have been of comfort throughout time. On the other hand, promoting beliefs that we really don’t hold will likely fail to help school-aged children and adolescents. It is natural to wish for a reunion, and Judaism offers many ideas about life after death, but it is important not to spin elaborate visions of heaven as a way of diverting the child’s expressions of grief. No matter what, the child has suffered a real loss.

7. Why the need not to describe death as sleep? Doesn’t Judaism speak of eternal rest?

Many children become anxious that they too will die and will fear going to sleep. Bedtime can be difficult enough for children who may long for a lost parent who previously put them to bed without inadvertently adding a fear that they themselves may not awaken. Although Judaism does use the imagery of eternal rest, such imagery can be difficult for children, who can’t always grasp the nuance in it.

8. Why the need to be so graphic about death – the lack of breath, of feeling, of movement? Isn’t that kind of gruesome and scary?

It is important for children to be able to differentiate their own state from that of the deceased. The dead person in a coffin is not suffering and does not need air, and neither burial underground nor cremation is painful and could not happen to a living person. The deceased does not come to the child, laugh with the child, or hold the child, because he or she cannot do those things any longer, not because he or she has rejected the child. These are important clarifications that address many of the worries children often have.

9. What comfort and explanation can I provide? How can our religion and congregation help?

We can express the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: that there is a season for everything in life. There is a time for every living thing to grow and to die. We can give examples of this with leaves, animals, and people.

Our tradition stresses that joy and pain, happiness and tears all are part of life. In every prayer service, at every holiday, at every lifecycle celebration we remember those who have died, reminding ourselves that even amidst moments of joy, we are aware of the potential for loss and the contributions of those no longer with us. Similarly, at a funeral service or a shiva, it is natural for there to be tremendous sadness, but we also stress the need to turn back to life, the benefits of finding happiness and love again.

Whatever beliefs we may hold about eternal life, our tradition stresses emphatically that our memories never die. The person we loved is dead, and we are sad; yet, we will always remember that person and the life and the love we have shared. In A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement, David Techner speaks about a child on an airplane who was looking for his grandpa in the clouds. Techner asked the boy to close his eyes and tell him the best, most favorite story about his grandpa. The boy went on and on about a favorite memory. When he was done, Techner asked him if he had just seen his Grandpa. The boy smiled and said he had. Then Techner told him that he had a daughter who died and that she was with him always in his mind and heart, even if he couldn’t find her in the clouds.

10. How do children of different ages – very young children, school-aged children and/or teens – generally react to death? How much can they understand?

Every child is unique. Just as adults do not really follow the timetables set out in many books on bereavement, children also react in highly individual ways. Nevertheless, children’s ages, temperaments, the circumstances of the death and of being informed of it, as well as previous experiences with loss all will play a part in determining their reactions.

Children of all ages need an opportunity to ask questions and express their fears. Very young children may return to play and a superficially bright mood and may show little sensitivity or regard for the grief of those around them, as if nothing had occurred. Absence of recognizable grief is not a sign of hard-heartedness or lack of love – it is a sign of being a very young child. Young children’s grief is harder to recognize and will emerge over time as they experience the absence of the loved one and grasp the finality of death as their emotional and intellectual growth continues.

Very young children are more likely to respond initially to the distress shown by others around them. Young children’s primary need is for security, affection, and caretaking. To the degree that other trusted adults in children’s lives continue to fill these needs, children may maintain their equilibrium. When children lose a parent or primary caretaker, they are likely to demand the return of the loved person, may not understand why the individual cannot return, and may react with regression, withdrawal, clinging, and tantrums. The most important message young children need to receive is that they continue to be safe and loved, and that the loved person would be there if that was at all possible.

School-aged children may show an increasing grasp of the finality of death but nevertheless may have a magical sense that the painful realities can be undone. Children of all ages have a tendency to hold themselves responsible for the death of loved ones, believing that had they behaved better, the death might not have occurred. Commonly, they have great fears about their own death. They may show some grief in ways that adults recognize, such as tearfulness and sadness. Like younger children, they may return to play and be able tolerate sadness for only so long. Their intense feelings may come out in imaginary play or art. Children are blunt in their questions and reactions. They often are most angry and frightened over the upset in their routines. They may be terribly worried about what will become of them.

Both very young children and school-age children may express a wish to get a “new mommy” or a “new daddy” in a way that seems fickle and disturbing to adults. Yet, for children this is an appropriate response as they truly do require the provision of another loving caretaker if their development and sense of security is to proceed normally. Children require parents to love them and to make them secure. If new sources of love aren’t found, then withdrawal, apathy, and failure to thrive may result. Grandparents and other caring relatives may fill the gap, but their need must not be understood as shallowness of attachment or lack of loyalty. This idea is particularly difficult for surviving spouses and grandparents, who may not recognize that children’s movement toward others demonstrates a healthy response and reflects the depth and positive nature of children’s ties to the person they have lost.

Teens are the furthest along in their capacity to understand the finality of loss – at a time when they especially need their parents to survive. Although teens and parents may often be in conflict, the teens nevertheless have an enormous need to know their parents are there when they need them. They may have trouble acknowledging their needs, and their peers may or may not be able to empathize with their plight adequately. They may feel guilty over what they may have said to the parent who has died; they may feel they have caused the illness; they often fear they too will die. They may have difficulty turning to the surviving parent, for fear of being babyish, or fear of the surviving parent’s over-dependence upon them in the absence of a spouse. Teens may show a range of reactions from moodiness to denial and may attempt to proceed as if the death has not occurred. Teens and school-age children may feel intense shame that the loss has rendered them different than their peers. They may also feel more afraid to leave home or more afraid of losing the surviving parent.

11. What can adults do to help?

These and similar statements can help frame death for a child and provide a structure for conversation: “I will listen. Nobody really understands death, but we can help each other. I (and list other adults close to the child) will be here for you. We will all feel better, even if it takes a long time. It is O.K. to feel better.”

Additionally, help children to express feelings by remembering together, sharing one’s own emotions, observing religious rituals such being with friends, family, and fellow congregants at the shiva and saying Kaddish. On the anniversary of the death (yahrzeit), mark the occasion by lighting a yahrzeit (memorial) candle and making a special effort to attend services to hear the name of the children’s loved one recited before the Kaddish.

Being involved as a family in a congregation where others provide support and ongoing care and hope can be very helpful. Clergy, religious school teachers, and youth group leaders can offer sensitive support and opportunities to share feelings. The congregational community also can help provide a return to normalcy, away from the intensity of grief.

Parents, clergy, and educators also can support the children through referrals for professional help in the form of support groups or psychotherapy. Examples of children’s behaviors that may require professional help include: inability to communicate with a parent or relatives over an extended period of time, unabated anxiety; or an inability to reinvest in life after an extended period.

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, LCSWserves as Union for Reform Judaism faculty for Sacred Caring Community and is director of the URJ Presidential Initiative for Disabilities Inclusion. In her role as director of the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Initiative, she helped to create the online learning site disabilitiesinclusion.org. She has been an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's Interfaith Doctor of Ministry Program in Pastoral Counseling. She writes and consults on disability, mental health, and helping children and adults to navigate the feelings associated with difficult personal and communal events, drawing about Jewish and secular sources. She is the co-author of Resilience of the Soul: Developing Emotional and Spiritual Resilience in Adolescents and Their Families. Ordained in 1999, Rabbi Mencher is also a graduate of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and of the Hunter College School of Social Work.