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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids when there's a Death in the Family

This week, we said goodbye to my husband’s father John, who died mid-November unexpectedly due to heart failure. My son told me that he was particularly sad because John was his last living grandparent.

Walking into the church where the funeral was held, I was surprised by the wave of emotion that hit me. Many of John’s friends were there, singing “Amazing Grace” as we walked to the front of the church, and I couldn’t help but remember that only two years before we were in the same spot, mourning my husband’s mother.

But what also struck me was that the people who were singing seemed as though they were trying to let us know they were with us, and the song was meant, somehow, to hold us up. It felt to me as if I could hear the love in their voices, saying, yes, this is a bad blow, but John is in our hearts right now and we are with you. 

My son and I are Jewish and our mourning rituals are very different than the traditions in my husband’s family, but the feeling of community is the same; because, of course, people are people, no matter what their traditions may be. In the Jewish tradition, we say the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer for a year, and the first week mourners traditionally sit on low benches, close to the ground, without wearing shoes. It occurred to me that I like this tradition because unexpected death always feels like I'm falling off a cliff--like the cartoon characters whose legs go round and round after they drop off the edge of a precipice.

My son’s first experience with the death of a loved one involved his stepmother, who died tragically early because of cancer. He was twelve at the time and his father asked me to pick him up from school and tell him about the death. I was loathe to do it, but felt I had to go through with it because his father had asked.

I believe Josh had been expecting his stepmother’s death, but telling him still felt like a blow and years later, I can still remember him punching the seat of our car, because I told him right after I’d picked him up from school. I tried to talk about love being eternal and the possibility of meeting again in the World to Come, but it didn’t feel very comforting to me, even while I was saying it.

I think no matter what we tell our children about death, it will always be sad, and maybe it should be. When someone dies in the Jewish community, we say “May God comfort you and all the mourners of Zion,” to let the mourner know he or she is not alone. I want very badly to believe in an afterlife, but I struggle to manage it—perhaps because it was not emphasized in my synagogue or Jewish community.

At the same time, there is a beautiful Biblical saying that does bring some measure of comfort, that I remembered on waking this morning. “Teach us how to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

Last summer, my husband and I met up with the family at their summer cabin, and I remember watching his dad enjoy the impromptu bluegrass concert his friends offer regularly in their home. He looked so happy and more than that, he looked as though he was drinking in every moment of the music, which lit up his face and eased the pain that seemed always to plague his back in the past few months.

Because moments are what life is made of, in the end, I think, they are what mortality teaches us--to hold onto and to treasure. So if you have trouble talking to your kids about immortality, maybe it’s fine just to start with the idea of being mortal. And even if reaching out your hands in love and kindness isn't everything... it can be a start.

For more on this subject, you might try reading these articles: