Teaching Children About Death and Dying

Rena Morano, Rabbinic Associate, Congregation Ner Tamid

As the Rabbinic Associate for Congregation Ner Tamid, I am frequently called upon to officiate at funerals and memorial services. At a recent funeral there was a teenage girl who was devastated by the passing of her grandfather. She sobbed uncontrollably from the time she arrived at the cemetery to the time she left, and I suspect the sobbing had begun considerably earlier and lasted even longer. In her grief, she was unable to hear any words of comfort from her mom or her aunt, nor from the prayers and words of the funeral service. It occurred to me then that if we postpone conversations with our children about death and dying until it actually occurs, we are not doing them a favor. The emotionally laden period of a loved one’s passing isn’t the optimum time for children to hear and understand the important ideas surrounding this inevitable part of our lives. Conversations about death and dying should be a natural, even casual, part of our interaction with them.

What are some of the ideas we should help our children to understand? Children shouldn’t confuse death with sleep so that they won’t fear sleeping. They should understand that it is permanent so that they won’t hold out a false hope that the person (or pet) will return. They should be helped to realize that, despite the sensationalized depictions on television, death is not something to be feared. In fact, they should be taught that our Jewish faith embraces all life, and that death is a natural part of life. At the same time it is important for children to know that Judaism acknowledges and accepts the open venting of grief.

And that is where our faith is so important. Children should be shown that just as our faith leads us through wonderful moments such as holidays and simchas, it also guides us through the complex and sometimes confusing emotions of mourning.

When our children join us in prayer we have opportunities to discuss truths through a Jewish lens. We can show them that the Kaddish prayer is actually a celebration of life. We can teach them that we turn to our Psalms when we need comfort, and that when we do so we are part of a tradition that transcends geography and time.

Many Jews believe the popular culture’s description of death and dying because they haven’t explored Jewish teachings on the subject. It would comfort our children to know that our tradition teaches us that there is no eternal punishment. We can read the words of the El Malei Rachamim prayer which teaches that the deceased have found comfort “beneath God’s wings.”

On Sunday, August 14th, Jews around the world will observe the fast day of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning which commemorates many tragedies that the Jewish people have experienced, including the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and the date of expulsion of the Jews from Spain. If you haven’t already done so, this is the perfect time to begin the important discussion with your children about death and dying.