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Talking to Young Children about Death: A Jewish Perspective

We rarely talk about death as adults, so it can be extra hard to find language to help kids understand what’s happening, especially since young children don’t get the nuances of tough subjects. The added piece of explaining death within multiple faith traditions may be more technically complicated, but it also has the opportunity to broaden our kids’ perspectives about the topic. So how do you talk about death from a Jewish perspective in interfaith families?

When I was 3, my mother died. I still remember what was said to me by well-meaning adults. So I understand parents wanting to ensure they are doing their best to explain this complex subject to their children. And as a parent of a young child myself, I doubly get it!

Here are some tips for talking about death:

Keep it simple and concrete.

Kids are constantly trying to learn from and absorb the world around them. The response adults give will model how they should respond as well. Answering the questions they ask in age-appropriate ways will help them to understand what has happened. Things like, “Our loved one got very sick and their body stopped working,” or “There was an accident and our loved one was hurt very badly. They died and won’t be coming back.”  Give examples of other losses that have occurred when they or other people in their life were sad about something.

Be straightforward and honest, explaining what death is rather saying that the deceased person is sleeping or are lost. This will help children understand the permanence of death, where other words may make them think that death is temporary or reversible. Ellen Simmons, a grief counselor at Our House, suggests letting small kids know that while none of the deceased’s body parts work anymore (they can’t see, or smell, or walk or hold things), that nothing can hurt the deceased anymore and that they cannot feel any pain.

What about heaven?

Heaven is a pretty easy to understand idea. Which makes it popular. And, maybe unsurprisingly, not a very Jewish one. Jewish views on what happens after we die have evolved over centuries. The Torah talks about shmayim (the heavens) as three realms: that which is above, the skies (shmayim), that which is on earth (ha’aretz), and that which is below (sha’ol). The medieval rabbis thought about earthly actions, acting with kindness and doing good deeds, as earning one a place in the world to come (olam ha’ba). There are Jews who believe that when the messiah comes, all the Jewish souls who have died will be reunited with their buried bodies and will make their way to Jerusalem.

One Jewish concept about death that resonates with children is that we are each a divine spark from God and when we die, that spark goes back to God and lives in every person on earth who loves us. Let them know that they can still have a relationship and talk with the person who died; they can still be happy with them, angry at them, sad for them and everything in-between.

What to expect.

Let children know what will be happening during the period of mourning and what to expect from the rituals and practices they will encounter. If you will be attending the rituals of another religion in your family, be able to explain those to your children as well. In addition to explaining “what” they are, let your children know some of the whys. We sit shiva so that family and friends can gather together and support each other. People talk at the funeral so they can share memories and laugh and cry together. Someone might be wearing a black ribbon so everyone knows they had a loved one die. (Learn more about mourning in the Jewish faith from our death and mourning booklet.)

Talk about and normalize emotions/feelings.

Kids don’t need sugar coating or fantasies about what is happening. They will internalize whatever is told to them as truth, so tell the truth. It’s OK for them to see parents mourn and it’s OK for them to have their own way of dealing with the loss. Sharing what you’re feeling will help them deal with their own emotions. Be sure to make space for them and listen and answer the questions they are asking, instead of answering things they can’t yet comprehend. As they grow up they may have different questions about death and you can continue to guide them in their search for answers. Like your own mourning, theirs will be a process and questions and feelings can come up at any time.

Create memories.
Judaism makes space in ritual practice to remember our loved ones. This is a nice way to talk about the concrete things we can do to continue to have ways to connect with those we love even after they are gone. Since kids understand tangible objects, this is a way to keep talking about and having items to hold, look at, and things to do about the loss experienced. You may want to create a memory box with pictures, and items that remind your child of the person, so they can connect when feeling sad.

Rabbi Elyssa Cherney

Rabbi Elyssa Cherney is an 18Doors Rukin Rabbinic Fellow. She leads lifecycle rituals for couples and families in Philadelphia who aren’t affiliated with a particular synagogue. The most important aspect of her work is helping others mark time through rituals big and small. She created the website to help people connect their Judaism to holy moments in their lives.