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How Do We Tell Our Children About Death?

Rabbi Erin Boxt confronts the grief facing the Temple Kol Emeth community after a beloved teacher's death.

The following is adapted from Rabbi Erin Boxt’s Jan. 18 sermon.

I want to address an issue that may be in the forefront of many of our minds. In the past seven months of my rabbinate—the first seven months of my rabbinate—I have had to bury almost a minyan. In seven months, I have had to bury almost 10 people.

Each time, as I sat down to reflect on the deceased to make sure I gave the proper respect to each of them, I concentrated as hard as I could on the positive. I have refused to consider the how and why of these deaths, for as Rabbi Steven Lebow expressed so eloquently, there is no WHY and there is no BECAUSE!

However, what I have been thinking about this week are our children. I have spent more time this week focusing on one important issue, the issue I choose to address this evening: What do we tell our children when death, devastation and catastrophe happen?

I have thought about, listened to and researched this topic. I am not sure I have the one correct answer. However, I do believe I can offer some thoughts and some insight into this challenging issue. As I sat down to think about what to write for this sermon, I decided to create a list of questions that I would want to focus on.

Let me just name the elephant in the room. I believe that is the most appropriate place for us to begin. Our congregation has spent a lot of time recently in pain for a variety of reasons. Let me make something clear: I wrote this sermon because of several events, not just because of the events of this past week. It is vital, however, to stress that this sermon was guided by an extremely deep pain that I and so many in our congregation are feeling.

It is not as if I decided to pour my heart out; it is because I believe that one of the key struggles for our congregation right now is: How do we speak to our children about this? Should we shield or shelter our children from the reality of our lives, which sometimes is much darker than we would prefer? Or should we allow our children to be aware of the many causes of our pain, allowing them to deal with and struggle with these causes in their own way?

As I mentioned earlier, I do not purport to have all of the answers. However, I can offer some of my own thoughts as well as the thoughts of scholars, teachers and others in our communities. The first source I turned to was A Practical Guide to Rabbinic Counseling, edited by Yisrael N. Levitz, Ph.D., and Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. In Chapter 11, David Pelcovitz, Ph.D., writes: “The Chinese word characters for ‘crisis’ consist of two symbols: danger and opportunity. Parents looking for guidance from their rabbi on how to help their children during a time of instability are understandably concerned about the physical and emotional risks that their children are facing.”

Dr. Pelcovitz goes on to explain that “during the early elementary school years (ages 5-9), children view death as something that can happen, but not to them.”

Dr. Pelcovitz acknowledges that young children are not necessarily able to understand what “death” means, but that it is something that happens, just not to them.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Batya recently after the loss of a young person. When Carlie asked Batya what happened, Batya responded, “He died.” Carlie asked, “How?” Batya then responded, “He hurt himself.”

Carlie’s response—“That wasn’t very smart”—showed her ability to understand the severity of what happened. However, I have wondered since then if our response to Carlie was appropriate. I do understand that all parents have to come to their own conclusions regarding what they tell their children. But when major events happen in our communities, should we not explain exactly what happened?

J. William Worden presents three views. The first view, expressed by Martha Wolfenstein in 1966, says, “Children cannot mourn until there is a complete identity formation, which occurs at the end of adolescence, when the person is fully differentiated.” Another view, expressed by Erna Furman in 1974, says, “Children can mourn as early as 3 years of age.” Worden’s view, however, suggests “that children do mourn, and what is needed is a model of mourning that fits children rather than the imposition of an adult model on children.”

We could look at study after study, and I am sure we would find even more conflicting results. What does this tell us? I believe it suggests that there is NO one right way of approaching these issues. When catastrophes occur, organizations come together and make decisions about what to do next. Sometimes, unfortunately, the decision that is made is the “best of the worst.” Ultimately, communities must bond together and work together to ensure everyone has the opportunity to mourn or respond how they are most comfortable, and we must always be surrounded by those who love and care for us—that is a MUST!

I would like to present one more perspective. Rabbi Earl A. Grollman, in How to Explain Death to Children, writes: “Remember that children are more aware of death than you may realize. That inevitable moment when life no longer exists confronts them at an early age: a pet is killed, a funeral procession passes by. … Killings are shown daily in vivid color on television. Remember too, however, that although your children may be familiar with the words ‘dead’ and ‘died,’ they may not comprehend their meaning in the same way that you do.”

According to Rabbi Grollman, there is no right or proper way: “What is said is significant, but how it is said will have a greater bearing on whether your youngsters develop unnecessary fears or will be able to accept, within their abilities, the reality of death.”

So we find ourselves in the same place we started. There is no one right way; however, what is clear is that we must speak to our children of the realities of life and death. Having these conversations, using words that will be easy to understand and in safe places, will enable our children to cope however they are able. If we do not give them the chance to mourn or cope or, perhaps, the chance to learn how to mourn and cope, we might be causing more damage.

Over the past seven months here at TKE, my thoughts and approaches to raising my own daughter have changed. Maybe it is the constant grip that reality holds on me. Or maybe I am realizing that when we are part of a community, we are going to have our crises—as well as our simchot.

Dear friends, this week has been long and difficult. We now find ourselves in the midst of Shabbat. Let us bask in the glory and sanctity of Shabbat. Let us take some time to reflect and think about those in our lives who are of the most importance. Please, please, please embrace them; tell them you love them. And, most important, know that each and every one of you is of extreme importance in my life and in the life of my family.

Shabbat shalom.

Temple Kol Emeth is a Reform Jewish congregation celebrating our next 30 years on the ladder of learning, faith and family for people across metro Atlanta. Visit www.kolemeth.net for more information, and check out Kol Emeth on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/TempleKolEmethMariettaGa and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TempleKolEmeth.

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