Death is the greatest destabilizing and shattering of life experiences, and is particularly challenging to children who, for the most part, have not as yet developed the life-skills necessary to effectively cope emotionally and spiritually with this magnitude of loss. They consequently need all the support that extended family, friends, clergy, teachers, therapists, classmates, and community can give them.
What do children know about death and when do they know it?
Very young children under the age of six years approach death with a kind of “magical thinking.” For example, the coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons is consistently pulverized in his pursuit of the Roadrunner. Yet, after every crushing experience, he is reconstituted, comes back to life and continues his pursuit of the Roadrunner. Cartoon characters do not stay dead, and very young children assume that people who die will also return to life.
Some children believe, from an egocentric perspective, that they might have caused the death, and it needs to be explained to them that all people die and that they themselves had absolutely nothing to do with Grandma’s death.
Children over the age of 7 are already beginning to understand concretely and abstractly the meaning of death. Many are fearful for their own safety and the safety of other close adults in their lives. They need reassurance from their surviving parents, grandparents and extended family that everyone else is healthy and has many more years to live, that this was a very sad and/or tragic experience and that it is likely not going to be repeated for many years.
They need to understand, as well, that most illness is treatable and people recover. Just because someone gets sick does not mean that they will die.
Children need to understand that death and sleep are different in order to keep at bay their fear that going to sleep means they, or their loved ones, won’t awaken in the morning.
Children need to know the truth about what causes death, that the disease that killed their loved ones is not necessarily contagious and that their surviving family members are safe.
If children ask about God, I urge you not to say: “God must have wanted Grandma!” “Grandpa is now in a better place!” “God gives us only those burdens that God believes we can handle!” Such thinking pits God against human beings rather than offer us a divine source of solace and comfort in our loss. The Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, 1787-1859) said that “God is closest to those whose hearts are broken.”
I am moved by the perspective of the French theologian Teilhard de Chardin, who observed that
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
You might share this idea with your children as it may open their hearts, minds and souls to a greater understanding of who they are at their essential spiritual core.
As a practical matter, I do not encourage children under the age of 5 to attend funerals because they do not understand what is taking place and are often distracting to the mourners. Children over the age of 5 or 6, however, should be given the option to attend after understanding what will take place and what will be expected of them.
Children should be involved in helping to make decisions about the funeral and what happens later in the home.
When the child returns to school, his/her friends also need to be prepared to receive them. The child should be greeted warmly by everyone, invited to join a group of kids at lunch, to walk with classmates between classes, to schedule play dates, and to do homework together.
Classmates should acknowledge what has happened by saying such things as, “I am so sorry that your Dad died.” “I’ve missed you.” “I’ve been thinking about you.” “I can’t imagine what it feels like.” “I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.”
For all of us, there is nothing more painful than the loss of the people we love. This unknown poet, offers comfort, perspective and hope:
“Four things are beautiful beyond belief: / The pleasant weakness that comes after pain, / The radiant greenness that comes after rain, / The deepened faith that follows after grief, / And the re-awakening to love again.”
I have written a booklet (“Preparing for Jewish Burial and Mourning”) that describes in some detail concisely Jewish burial and mourning customs. I believe it can be helpful for you and your children in better understanding how Judaism understands death and mourning and why we do what we do. See my synagogue’s web-site: