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Talking to Children About Death

Describing death and helping children cope

1. When is it best to talk to children about death?
Every Jewish Prayer service includes the Kaddish* prayer. The Kaddish is a sensitive way to begin to teach children about death; it can be explained that it is a time we remember and honor those who have died. Making a shiva* visit and consoling the bereaved are considered central obligations of Jewish life; this is another opportunity to teach children about death. It is good for school aged children and adolescents to be aware that their parents and grandparents are fulfilling this obligation and where appropriate the child can accompany parents to visit a classmate or relative who has experienced a loss.

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

2. Why bring the subject up when no one close has died? Won’t that just make my child anxious unnecessarily?
Inevitably every child will ultimately have to face the death of someone cherished. When those upon whom the child relies are also bereaved they have far less wherewithal to respond with calmness and patience. It is better to have a chance to discover these painful realities when the feelings are not so personal and powerful. Our tradition emphasizes life but does not shy away from acknowledging the mystery and sadness of death. Through acknowledging death we learn to cherish our time together, to be comforting to one another and to do all we can to safeguard life. On the other hand our tradition urges us not to be afraid of death but to have trust in the goodness of life and the sense that death is a time of peace, not a time 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 and angry and hurt ourselves over the loss. We must assure the child that we are not angry with him/her even if we seem more impatient and short-tempered—we are upset with the situation and not him/her. It is helpful to enlist the help of relatives, friends, clergy, neighbors who are less directly involved and who can interpret the surviving relatives’ behavior and emotions to the child. Jewish mourning customs including 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. In understanding and observing reactions to death, bereavement, and healing children have the values of love, attachment, capacity to bear difficult feelings and healing and recovery affirmed.

4. What should I actually tell my child about death?
Children need to be helped to understand that death is not like how it is portrayed in games or cartoons where the character pops back to life moments later. It is not like sleep. It is final and irrevocable. The dead person does not breathe, nor move. There is no more hurt and no more pain but there is also no more life. Death can be explained by reminding children of memories of dead birds or bugs—a stillness that is permanent. This is very difficult for a person who is describing the state of someone they also loved, so if this is occurring at the time of bereavement the help of others can be sought.

5. Why the need to speak of finality?
Our answers will vary based upon the age of the child and our own personal beliefs. The younger child might believe that a person can be dead and then un-dead. As hard as it is to confront the child with pain, it is a reality to which he or she will have to accommodate eventually. Telling a child a grandparent or parent has gone on a long trip may seem kind at the time but creates unrealistic hope and does not allow them to give vent to their true feelings. We often do this because it is so very painful for us to not to be able to protect young children and to manage their distress but they need our truthfulness to master the realities. Clearly such statements which confuse death and trips will in the long run confound separation problems because children will 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?
We will have a longer discussion of speaking to children of the after-life in the following sections but 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 which 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 real expressions of grief—no matter what, the child has suffered a real loss for the rest of his or her life.

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 is difficult enough for children who may long for a lost parent who previously put them to bed without inadvertently adding to this a fear that they themselves may not awaken.

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 the child to be able to differentiate his or her state from that of the deceased. The dead person in a coffin is not being suffering nor needing air, the burial under ground or cremation is not painful and could not happen to a living person. The loved person 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 that children often have.

9. What comfort and explanation can I provide? How can our religion and congregation help?
In ways that are appropriate to the child’s age we can express the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that there is a season for every thing 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 are parts of life. In every prayer service, at every Festival, at every wedding we remember those who died, reminding ourselves that even amidst celebration 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 and tears but we also stress the need and healthiness of turning back to life, to being able to love again and to find happiness again.

Whatever beliefs we may hold about eternal life, our tradition most stresses that our memories never die. The person we loved is dead, we are sad, we will always remember that person and the life and the love we have shared. In, A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort David Techner is quoted speaking about a child on an airplane who was looking for his grandpa in the clouds. Techner, who had himself been bereaved, 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 did. Then Techner told him that he had a daughter who died who he had with him always in his mind and heart, even if he couldn’t find her in the clouds.

10. How do 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, the child’s age, temperament, the circumstances of the death and of being informed of it, and previous experiences with loss will all play a part in determining his or her reaction.

Children of all ages need more than anything else an opportunity to ask questions and express their fears. The very young child may return to play and superficially bright mood and may show little sensitivity or regard to the grief of those around him or her, demanding trips to the park or ice-cream 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. The young child’s grief is harder to recognize and will emerge over time as the absence of the loved person is experienced and the finality is grasped as the child’s emotional and intellectual growth continues.

a) A very young child is more likely to respond initially to the distress shown by others around him or her. The young child’s primary need is for security, affection and caretaking. To the degree that other loved people continue to provide this the child may maintain his or her equilibrium. If the loss is of a parent or primary caretaker the child is likely to demand the return of the loved person, may not understand why they cannot return and may react with regression, withdrawal, clinging and tantrums. The most important message a young child needs to receive is that he or she continues to be safe and loved and the loved person would be there if he or she could have been.

b) A school aged child 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 had they only behaved better this might not have occurred. Commonly they have great fears about their own deaths. They may show some grief in a way adults recognize--tearfulness, sadness. Like younger children, they may return to play and peers and be able tolerate being around sadness for only so long. Children are blunt in their questions and reactions. They often are most angry and frightened over the upset in their routines. They are 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---and if new sources of love aren’t found withdrawal, apathy and failure to thrive may be the result. (Bowlby) 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 is particularly difficult for surviving spouses and grandparents, who may not recognize the health inherent in the child’s movement toward others which reflects the depth and positive nature of the original tie to the one they have lost.

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

11. What can adults do to help?
The most important words--I will listen. Nobody really understands death, but we can help each other. Parents and relatives who share the loss can remind the child I will be here. We will all feel better, even if it takes a long time. It is O.K. to feel better. Help the child to express feelings by remembering together, sharing one’s own emotions, observing religious rituals like being with friends, family and fellow congregants at the shiva, saying kaddish, lighting yartzheit* candles.

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 provide sensitive support and opportunities to share feelings. They also can provide a return to normality away from in the intensity of the grief but allowing the child not to speak of the loss and to be distracted and engaged.

Parents, clergy and educators can look towards referring the child for professional help in the form of support group or psychotherapy when the child is showing symptoms and unable to communicate with parent or relatives, where the child’s anxiety does not abate and when the child is unable to reinvest in life.

12. Definitions:

a) Kaddish- Prayer that is part of every service that people say to honor the memory of a loved one. Prayer does not mention death, rather praises God, reminding that we mourn now and have sadness, life is god and that love and joy can be our again.

b) Shiva (alternate spelling: shivah)- A period of typically seven days following a funeral to gather with friends and family to share memories.

c) Yahrtzeit- It is both the anniversary of the person’s death and the candle that is lit at sundown the night before the anniversary of the death. Many families make a special effort to attend services to hear their loved one’s names recited before the Kaddish.