Teaching About Death
Many children learn about death without warning. A national tragedy that headlines TV news, a pet’s unexpected dash through traffic, or the loss of a close relative or friend can prompt a variety of questions from children encountering this phenomenon for the first time.
While many put off or avoid these conversations, Stephanie Garry seeks them out, trying to make them happen before that first experience. As chief administrative officer for Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in Manhattan, she regularly speaks with people of all ages on the numerous questions surrounding the end of life. (She is not a licensed funeral director.)
While she regularly speaks with children in the context of death through her professional work, Garry is neither a social worker nor child psychologist, and emphasizes that having these professionals play a role when discussing death with children, particularly in a school setting or when a particularly traumatic loss has occurred.
Why is it important to talk about death and dying with children?
Death is an important life cycle event that needs to be talked about. It’s difficult to talk about when someone receives a diagnosis; if we can talk about it beforehand, it’s better for everybody. Death is a profound moment, part of the cycle of life, and needs to be treated with the same amount of weight and importance as other moments.
Thinking about death is no longer a part of our everyday culture. Many years ago, multi-generational families lived together. Children lived with grandparents and great-grandparents. Everyone lived in different parts of the house and people died at home. End-of-life was a part of life. What has happened is we have moved to hospice, hospitals, and nursing homes, which are not so welcoming to children. There’s that atmosphere of having to “walk in” to go visit grandma where she’s “going to die.” The whole conversation has turned to be a negative and unpleasant one, so the sooner we can have these multi-generational conversations in families, the better. Children need to hear that in this life, everything dies; we hope and pray it happens in the right order, and that it happens in a peaceful, loving way, with the person who is dying surrounded by love at the end of life.
One of the first instructional books I read was A Candle for Grandpa by David Techner. It was insightful, informative and simple. It continues to be a reference for me.
I understand that Plaza Jewish Community Chapel teaches field trip groups about death. Are schools open to learning about this topic?
It’s definitely a challenge when I reach out to directors of nursery and religious schools. The conversation is not easily received, and it takes a lot of effort to get into schools to talk to kids, but it is hands-down one of the best conversations they have, because kids want to hear about it.
I recently taught a class for parents about how to talk to children about death. There was a theme that kept coming up. One parent said that his father had died and his child said, “What are we going to do with Grandpa, because we can’t flush him down the toilet like a fish.” That’s how some families have been thrust into conversations about death, so there’s at least some recognition that there’s a conversation that could be had sooner.
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How does Plaza start a conversation about death and dying?
We do a program called “Where’s Grandpa?” for parents of young children off-site in religious schools. For b’nai mitzvah and high school students, we bring them to the chapel for programs. We always invite parents to come, but usually students are accompanied by clergy or a teacher. What we do is take the mystery out of the funeral chapel, so that when it’s time for them to attend a funeral for a grandparent, they understand what’s going to take place--and why we do what we do; It’ll make that journey a little easier for them.
When middle school students visit the chapel, we say, “When a funeral takes place, it’s going to be a sad day. There will be a lot of sadness around you, because there is a lot of love for the person. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable.” It’s important information for them to feel the freedom to be in that sad place and to help them feel that "uncomfortable" is okay.
During the 45-minute program, we first take them to the family room of the chapel. We explain that this is the room where the family receives everyone who comes to the funeral. Then we walk them to the chapel and explain that this is where the funeral takes places and that family members and friends will stand at the podium and talk about the person who died.
How do you explain the process of preparing the body for burial?
We talk to them about what happens from the time someone dies to the time they arrive at the chapel. We explain that very often it happens according to Jewish tradition. The body is brought to the chapel, where the tahara (ritual washing) is done as close to the time of the funeral as possible. The body remains in the refrigerator until the start of the service. One of the most fascinating parts for the kids is when we introduce them to our shomer, who watches the body from the moment it arrives to the moment the service begins. They love asking the shomer questions about what it’s like to watch over the body. The students are so intrigued by someone who works in the world of death.
We also show them the room where tahara is done. The program is filled with me asking them lots of questions, so when we’re here I ask, “Why do you think that everyone is wrapped in the same white shroud?” Very often they will say to me “Because everybody is the same.” They understand that it doesn’t matter what job you had or how much money you had. Everyone came into the world the same way and everyone should leave the same way. Everyone is treated equally. That’s really interesting to them and they get it.
We also talk about the chevra kadisha (people who oversee the Jewish burial ritual) and how we show k’vod hamet, respect for the dead. We talk about how it’s the most sacred act that one can do. I ask “Why?” and they say, “Because no one [the person who died] can thank them.” It’s all about showing dignity for your community members and preparing the body for burial in the most sacred way.
Plaza has a mikvah (ritual bath) that it uses strictly for tahara. The seven prayers that are said are on the wall. We explain that the chevra kadisha says these seven prayers and they know that no other conversation happens aside from these prayers. They know to show complete dignity for the deceased as the body is prepared for burial.
Have any particular experiences stuck with you?
The first question I ask whenever I visit schools is “How many of you have been to a funeral?” I also ask the educators if anyone has lost a parent.
Before visiting a school in Westchester, I asked the educators my question and they said it was just grandparents. So I asked, “How many of you have been to a funeral?” and one boy said his dad died a year ago. I looked at the educator and she said she didn’t think he was attending the class.
I said to him, “I’m so sorry, but I am happy to have you in class because you can provide some insight and be a teacher with me.” We go through the presentation and at one point, I’m showing slides of the casket room, and at the very end I said, “Does anyone have any questions?” This little boy said, “I wish I had known all this before I went to my dad’s funeral.” So I said, “I bet you do, but now you have all this information in your pocket, and I hope you won’t need to use it for a long time.”
His mother called and said it was a wonderful opening for his classmates to talk to him about his experience. Much like adults during shiva, kids don’t know what to say. Classmates don’t know to say, “I’m sorry your dad died.” My visit gave his classmates an opening to talk to him and see how he’s doing. It was a profound moment.
Is there a main point you’d like people to take away about Jewish rituals related to death & dying?
In Judaism, we find great comfort in ritual, even though during this time we are going to be sad and people are going to be crying, we have this frame around us. We know exactly what we’re supposed to do. We talk to the students about shiva, and I say that’s what Judaism gives us -- this great gift-- - it tells us exactly what to do. We can find comfort because of the ritual given to us. That might be the candle that burns when we come home from the funeral and throughout shiva. I ask the kids, “What is the first thing you do when shiva is over?” I explain that we all go for a walk around the block. They ask why and I explain that you’re literally putting one foot in front of the other, getting back into the rhythm of life.