Explaining Death to Children

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Help in explaining death to children.

 

In this article:

Advice by Heidi Hoover

Books that explain death

Organizations that can help

Other resources

 

Advice by Heidi Hoover

We who live in modern American society are lucky. Advances in medical technology have dramatically increased life expectancy and reduced infant mortality. Many dangerous childhood diseases that used to be common are now rare or even eradicated due to vaccines now available. One consequence of this is that we have less contact with death. I believe that as familiarity with death has decreased, fear of it has increased. In our society, we want to remove death as far from ourselves as possible"we avoid it and try to hide it. Dying people are usually in hospitals or hospices, away from normal life. We use euphemisms: We say someone passed on, or left us, or is with God now, rather than just saying they died. And we shield our children from death, as we ourselves were probably shielded from it.

Hiding death from our children, avoiding talking with them about it, and keeping them away from funerals and other rites of mourning does them a disservice. We do not prevent them from becoming aware of death, thinking about it, wondering about it, and, often, worrying about it. When someone close to them dies, be it a close relative, friend, teacher, or pet, children go through a mourning process and, like adults, they need help and support, though their level of understanding and specific concerns may be different than an adults.

What do our children need from us? How can we help them understand death and cope with their grief? Halakha is largely silent on this point. In The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Maurice Lamm writes:

"Minors have no obligation to observe the laws of mourning. Thus, a boy under the age of thirteen and a girl under the age of twelve need not shiva or follow the other observances. However, their clothes should be rent for them, and they should be encouraged in congruity with their intelligence, sensitivities, sensibilities, and maturity to restrict their daily activities. This procedure should be followed especially in the case of more mature children, although they are still minors."

Reading between the lines, we see that we should include children in mourning in age-appropriate ways. In order to put into practical terms what we need to do for bereaved children, we turn to modern developmental psychology.

A baby or young toddler doesn't understand what death means and can't articulate feelings, but does know when people around him or her are anxious, agitated, upset, or under stress. She or he will also feel and react to the absence of someone familiar. Children of this age should be given a sense of security through attention and physical affection, holding, hugging, and cuddling them.

From about the age of three, children are generally able to talk about death and begin to have some understanding of it. They should not be shielded from it. If someone close to them dies, they should be told soon enough that they will be able to mourn with their family. If they want to, they should be allowed to attend the funeral. Adults should not use euphemisms when talking to children about death. Young children are very literal, and don't understand terms like “passed” or "lost."

There are a few vital principles in explaining death to children:

--- Listen: Different children have different questions and concerns based on their age, life experience, and personalities. Give them your full attention, take them seriously, and listen. It may help them if you ask if they have specific questions about different parts of the process, like the funeral or the shiva.

--- Be straight with them: As mentioned above, avoid euphemisms. Answer the questions they have calmly and specifically (use your judgment as to the level of detail that is appropriate for the child). Let them know that their feelings, whatever they are, are normal. Be honest about your own feelings. They need to know that people often feel guilty, angry, or relieved as well as sad when someone dies. They need to know that it's okay to cry. If you don't know the answer to a question, it's okay to say so. Ask what the child thinks. If the child wants to know what happens after death, share your beliefs, discuss what Jewish theology tells us, ask what they think, say you don't know but you wonder about it too, whatever feels most honest and also age-appropriate for the child.

--- Be careful with explanations: While it is important to answer questions honestly, adults should be aware that if they explain that someone died because they were sick, that may cause they child to fear that if they, or someone else close to them, get sick, they too will die. It may be necessary to explain that usually people get well again when they get sick, but sometimes they get very very sick and then they die. The explanation will be different depending on the specific circumstances; just remember that being too general can be confusing and frightening for a child trying to understand what happened.

--- Prepare them for what to expect: Tell them what will happen at the funeral, the cemetery, the shiva.

--- Give them physical affection: If they will allow it, physical affection is a powerful nonverbal way to show a child that they are still loved and will still be cared for.

--- Listen: I can't overemphasize the importance of spending time focusing on a bereaved child and being available to listen and address questions. Try not to project your own ideas of what questions and concerns a child may have; rather, solicit and hear the questions and concerns of the child you are dealing with.

While it is very important to facilitate and allow a child to mourn, a parent may not be able to do so due to their own grief. In that case, another adult or adults close to the child should be given the role of explaining, listening, and caring for the child.

If the child or the adult caring for the child is having trouble expressing feelings, questions, or concerns, or just as an introduction to the subject, there are many books geared toward children that address the subject of death, and this can be a good way to begin discussions.

As time passes and the initial period of mourning ends, children continue to feel the absence of an important person in their lives, just as adults do. On jahrzeits, birthdays, holidays that were shared with the deceased person, it is helpful to give children openings and opportunities to talk about the loved one. Depending on the age of the child, he or she may be encouraged to draw pictures or write about their memories. There are commercial activity books available for this purpose, or ordinary blank books or notebooks could be used.

It is common for children to begin asking about death at around the age of five, even if they are fortunate enough not to have experienced the death of a person close to them or even a pet. My daughter, who is five, began asking about death a few months ago. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to help her begin to develop an understanding of death before she has to deal with grief as well. I try to answer her questions openly, honestly, and without anxiety. It
takes some effort to talk to her about death dispassionately, because I do have anxiety about the topic. I think it's important to try, though, because death is natural, it does happen to everyone, and I want her to be able to think about it that way.

A brief anecdote: As I was putting my daughter to bed one night, she looked lovingly at me and said, "You take care of me." I said, "That's right. " She continued calmly, "But you"re going to die someday." "Yes," answered, having swallowed my surprise and instinctive impulse to tell her not to think about that. Unable to resist, I said, "How will that be for you, when I die?" "Well," she said, "by then I'll be able to drive the car.""So you"ll be okay?" "Yeah.”

Clearly she was thinking about who would take care of her if I weren't around, and concluded, rightly, that when she's grown up she'll be able to take care of herself and won't need me to do it. Not that she won't miss me, but she'll be okay.

All this is to say that when children ask about death, we as rabbis and cantors should engage them, and we should encourage our congregants (their parents) to do so. We should help children develop healthy attitudes toward death, so that when it does touch their lives directly, as it must sometime, they will be better equipped to handle it.

Bibliography:
Diamant, Anita. Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead & Mourn as a Jew. New York: Schocken Books, 1998.
Grollman, Earl A., ed. Bereaved Children and Teens. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000.

 

A few books for children (and adults) about death:

Tear Soup by Pat Schwiebert
This is an amazing book about grief, great for children or adults. Really phenomenal.

 

These next three books are all in the style of answering questions about death and explaining it in a simple and practical way:

 

When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death (Dino Life Guides for Families) by Laurie Krasny Brown
"For pretty young children."

Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomi Depaola

Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higginbotham
"is a lovely book, for all ages."

Goodbye Mousie by Robie H Harris
A boy grieves for his dead pet Mousie, helps to bury him, and begins to come to terms with his loss.

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst
"Invisible Strings is a lovely book."

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie
"My father just passed away and we read my 4 year old daughter the "I miss you" by Pat Thomas and "Lifetimes" by Bryan Mellonie books. Both were extremely helpful and easy for her to understand."

I Miss You: A First Look At Death, by Pat Thomas
"For pretty young children, has some nice supplemental questions encouraging children to share their feelings."

What On Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies? by Trevor Romain
"For kids about age 6 and up, I would say."

Gentle Willow, Tear Soup by Joyce Mills
"(which might be better for a 9 year old)."

The Fall of Freddy the Leaf

I Miss You: A First Look at Death

Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley

I'll always Love You by Hans Wilhelm

 

More books for grown-ups:

The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst

Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie DePaola

The Fall of Freddie the Leaf (full text)

The Goldfish Went on Vacation (Chapter 1 is published in The New York Times)

The Day I Saw a Dragonfly

Option B by Sheryl Sanburg
"I am currently reading Sheryl Sandburgs new book, Option B.  While it is not for the child, it is a great book for any adult who wants to heal from a loss or, in some ways more importantly, help others heal as well."

Kathleen McCue's How to Help Children
"This is not a children's book but Kathleen McCue's How to Help Children through a Parent's Serious Illness has some good language for how to talk with kids about death at age appropriate levels."

 

Organizations that can help:

Here are two other resources tat can help with families going through bereavement.

A Caring Hand
213 East 63rd Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 229-CARE (2273) 
http://acaringhand.org

"The mission of ACH is to meet bereaved children and families wherever they are in their grief and fulfill their needs in a caring and knowledgeable environment through services to help them with their emotional journey and financial assistance to aid their future education."

Loss and Bereavement Program for Children and Adolescents
Jewish Board of Family & Children Services

120 W 57th Street, 9th floor
New York, NY 10019
(212) 632-4692
http://jbfcs.org

Bereavement Services: "Provides bereavement groups designed to help children and adolescents cope with the death of a parent or caretaker. These groups are held at JBFCS sites throughout the city. Individual and group counseling are also available for surviving caretakers."

 

Other resources

The American Psychological Association recently posted a really good podcast (article) on discussing death with young children and also managing anxiety in children with mindfulness and relaxation techniques, including some resources. They write: "Protecting children from sadness, anxiety and stress is a natural instinct for many adults. But, finding ways to help them address these inevitable obstacles to happiness is a challenge parents, teachers and other caregivers have to face head on. In this episode, Bonnie Zucker, PsyD, talks about how to explain death to young children as well as the research into the effectiveness of relaxation and mindfulness techniques for kids..." Details here. 

The Sesame Street Grief Toolkit 
"No feeling is too big (or small) to talk about."

Child Bereavement UK
For parents grieving the loss of a child. 

National Child Traumatic Stress Network 
For particularly traumatic incidents.

 

Further Reading on the Web:

What to say when your kid asks about scary news