5 Questions Children and Parents Ask About Death
Children and parents have many questions about how and why life ends and how to explain it. Based on a conversation with Stephanie Garry, chief administrative officer of Plaza Jewish Community Chapel, here are five common examples from each. (Note: Stephanie Garry is not a social worker, child psychologist or licensed funeral director)
Questions That Children Ask About Death
1) Why did he or she die?
Children need to be reassured that most of the time people live a long life and it’s natural that life ends for everybody - humans, animals, plants. They also need to understand that sometimes people get sick--not just a cold, but very sick, and they can die from serious complications from disease.
Whenever there is a sudden death in a school, there should be check-ins and follow-ups from trained counselors and psychologists. We don’t want to overbear the kids. We want them to know that it’s okay to talk about it if it’s something on their mind. You need to acknowledge the event that took place and also that life does go on.
2) Will I die and will Mom or Dad die?
These are huge questions, and simple, honest answers are what kids are interested in. We can tell them the reality is that everything that lives will die someday. Most people in this country can expect to live a long life, and that’s why we go to the doctor, so we know how to take care of ourselves. It’s best to keep the answer simple and easy for the child.
3) How does a person get to heaven?
Kids ask this question along with “What happens when someone dies?” We often throw around the phrase “up in heaven” and children want to know: If the body is buried in the ground, how did the person get to heaven? In talking about this particular question, I introduce the spirit or soul. After the heart stops beating we bury the body out of respect for the body, but the spirit is no longer there. I say, “The love you feel when you think about them, that is the soul living on.” We keep it short and simple.
4) Where are their legs? (When they see someone in an open casket)
Families often come to us and ask if a child should see someone in a casket. When the child sees the person in the casket they’re left with the question of “Where are the legs?” We leave it open to the parents if they want to bring their child [to the funeral]. Now, whether they need to see someone in a casket, I am always one to say no. It’s better to remember that person in life.
5) What happens to a body in the ground?
We talk to the kids about returning to the earth and how the body is a shell of the person you hold in your heart--that is where the person lives on forever. The body decomposes in a natural way and goes back into the earth. We sometimes use the symbolism of water. When there’s a puddle of water, it goes back into the ground, into the earth, and that’s what’s going to happen to a body that is buried.
Questions That Parents Ask About Death
1) Should my child be allowed to attend the funeral?
Children take cues from their parents. I’ve seen out-of-control people who bring children and so the children are out of control. So, whether or not the child should attend the funeral depends on how the parent will handle the funeral and having the child present.
I think it’s a positive experience for the child to come to the funeral. I’ve heard many stories about children not being allowed to go when they were very close to a grandparent and it bothered the parents later. Kids really want to be present.
2) Should my child be permitted to view the body?
Children often ask a similar question. I am always one to say no. It’s better to remember that person in life.
3) Should my child go to the cemetery?
I think if they go to the funeral, then they should go to the cemetery, because that’s the most important part of the Jewish ritual. Nothing that happens there is beyond the child’s comprehension. The child shouldn’t necessarily be next to the grave as dirt is shoveled on, but there’s nothing there we haven’t talked about. The curiosity of the child is strong--they’re going to want to know what happened if they don’t go.
4) One child is acting differently than another. What’s your advice?
Children’s reactions can become unpredictable. One child might be overwhelmed with grief, while the other is not. Because death has been taken out of the home environment, kids often get a first taste of death on TV. There it’s often violent and unpleasant. Their minds are only so developed, so for them to be in a peaceful place, it can be really challenging. Each child is going to have a very different experience.
5) When a loved one dies, how do we go on with holidays, birthdays, vacations, etc.?
These events bring up the reality that someone is not sitting around the table anymore. We need to acknowledge that we’re feeling sad. Kids want honesty. A parent could say something like “I am sad and miss my Dad, but we are thinking of him and celebrating the holiday.” That way it is acknowledged and talked about. We are keeping the person at the center of the conversation because we don’t want to shy away from it. However, we keep it in perspective and as Jews we know life goes on and we cherish the day because we don’t get it back.