Your mother-in-law has died and your elementary school aged children are struggling. What should you tell them that that Jews believe about death?
If you were raised as a Christian, it may surprise you to know that most Jews do not learn about the official Jewish view of the afterlife. Jews have a rich tradition of beliefs about what happens to a person after he or she dies, but they aren’t beliefs that easily fit together. There is a concept in Judaism of the soul leaving the body to reside in Gan Eden, or paradise. At the same time, rabbis believed in resurrection of the dead. Medieval Jewish mystics included in the Jewish mystical tradition, the kabbalah, an idea of reincarnation, called gilgul. Another Jewish way of thinking about life after death is the World to Come, which is either the world as it is for the soul after death, or the world of the future messianic era, when the dead will be resurrected, or both.
If these beliefs seem difficult to reconcile with one another, it may be because Jews do not concentrate on teaching about the afterlife. As a minority in Christian culture, Jews have staked out a place as the religion of the here-and-now, leaving discussions of afterlife beliefs to scholars and mystics. Jews have believed, and many continue to believe, that people’s souls persist after their bodies die, and that good deeds in this world will be rewarded in the world to come. Jewish teachings about ethics, morality, God and family, and even Jewish teachings about death, are not dependent on any one doctrine about what happens to people after they die.
For children, the biggest challenge may be in understanding what it means that someone has died and isn’t going to come back. Children who are in mourning need the same kind of comfort as adults, even though they aren’t in a position to do all the things adults do. Children can also participate in comforting mourners in their family and community, which is an important Jewish thing to do even if the mourners are not Jewish. If you are sending food to a Jewish house of mourning, or flowers to a non-Jewish relative in mourning, visiting someone to comfort them or if you are just remembering the person who died, children can be involved in an age-appropriate way.