As always, the Temple Emanu-El clergy are available to help you prepare for these difficult conversations.
Below you will find some information and resources to get you started. Not every book is right for every child and the same goes for the advice listed below. For a longer list of resources, please contact a member of the clergy team.
- Bubby, Me, and Memories by Barbara Pomerantz
- Where Do People Go When They Die by Mindy Avra Portnoy
- Daddy’s Chair by Sandy Lanton
- Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child by Rabbi Earl Grollman
- A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement (The Art of Jewish Living) by Ron Wolfson
- How to Explain Death to Children by Rabbi Earl Grollman (pamphlet)
- When talking to your child about death, there is no one size fits all. The specifics of who died, under what circumstances, how you generally communicate with your child, as well as the uniqueness of your child, all play into how your conversation about death might be best approached with your child
- Avoid euphemisms when talking about death. Saying things like, ”Grandpa went away on a trip, is sleeping, passed on…” will only further confuse your child. Be straight and honest. Instead, try: “her body stopped working”, “she is not coming back”, “we will miss her very much and we can think about her, but we will not see her at Shabbat anymore.”
- Don’t use the word “sick” when death is approaching, but rather ”ill” or ”disease.” This way the child won’t think that being sick (flu) means they will die.
- Avoid making death either a punishment or a reward. Thus, ideas like “Grandpa was so good that God wanted him” or “Grandma has gone to her reward”, or “Uncle Joe is in a better place” or “he got what he deserved”, should be avoided because the theological metaphors can be taken literally by young children.
- Let your child try to answer their own questions. You’ll learn much more about what they are really asking and what they need from you this way. When they ask, “Mommy, where did grandpa go?” try answering with a question, “Where do you think grandpa went?” These exchanges will likely lead to memories and stories, which is often what we need in times of grief since hard answers are elusive if not
- Let the child know that it is okay to be sad, and sometimes parents/adults get sad.
- Let children validate their sadness and reassure them that being sad (and other emotions, as well, such as anger) are natural and very much okay.
- Each conversation with a young child should have a follow-up within a few days. “Do you remember when we talked about Grandpa? Tell me what we talked about … how are you feeling about Grandpa now?”
Should you take your child to the funeral?
There tend to be two opinions on this matter. You’ll decide which works best for your child, and the clergy team is here to help you reach a decision. The following advice relates to preschool-aged children:
- Some are adamant that a preschool-aged child should not attend a funeral because the cemetery is too abstract for little kids. If there is going to be abundant and outward expressions of grief, this is more than a child of this age can handle. Additionally, a needy child distracts a parent from their own grief.
- Others are firm that, depending on the child and the circumstance of death, it may be absolutely appropriate to bring a child to the funeral; especially if the child is asking to go. It may be part of their need to “say goodbye” and mourning, and should not be denied to them.