Don’t Fear the Reaper
Shielding kids from the Yizkor memorial service, or death in general, is misguided—as children’s books suggest
Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday perhaps most suffused with awareness of mortality, fragility, and loss, also features the parental equivalent of the Running of the Bulls: the rapid-fire herding of children out of the Yizkor service. For generations, mothers and fathers have tried to shield their kids from the memorial prayers for the deceased. To some degree, they may just want to protect their kids from boredom and/or protect the congregation from fidgety, whiny disruptiveness during a somber section of the holiday liturgy. But there’s also an element of superstition to the rushing: Don’t expose kids to the roll call of dead peeps! Ptui ptui ptui! Are you trying to tempt the evil eye? Do you want to induce Satan to snatch the living parents?
This attitude is misguided. First off, Satan has better things to do than pounce on the families of children who stay for Yizkor. He’s busy producing Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. And second, shielding kids from death—and even talk of death—does them a disservice.
Children understand more than their parents think. Even if they’ve never attended a funeral for a family member, they’re likely to have heard about a friend’s family’s loss or experienced the death of the class guinea pig or goldfish. And if they have had a relative die, they’ve processed the loss in their own way. The National Alliance for Grieving Children offers helpful suggestions for parents trying to understand childhood grief. And the New York Times recently ran a story about how the practice of not allowing children to attend funerals has fallen into disfavor: Trying to safeguard kids from mourning, and even from the awareness of mortality, tells them that death is something horrid and shameful, something they’re unable to cope with. The Times quotes Alan Wofelt, a psychologist in Fort Collins, Colo., who calls America a “mourning avoidant” culture with “a tendency to overprotect children from the realities of grief and loss.” I agree, and would add that kids intuitively understand sins of omission. If you’re using euphemisms, dropping your voice, or yanking them out of a sanctuary when the subject of death comes up, you’ve conveyed that you’re hiding something terrifying. And that can be more frightening for kids than death itself.
Fortunately, there are some great books to help parents talk to their kids about death in a way that’s age-appropriate and authentic, but not terrorizing.
For the youngest children, finding emotionally and Jewishly pertinent picture books can be a real challenge. For them, the finality of death is hard to understand. But the finality of everything is hard to understand! When my dad died, Josie was just shy of 3. When we knew we were visiting him in the hospital for the last time, we told her he wasn’t likely to wake up. “I will kiss him and wake him up,” she said confidently (and wrongly). After he died, she kept saying, “That’s Zayde,” whenever the phone rang, and telling us she wanted to sing to him. She listened when we said we wished she could. And she drew endless pictures of Zayde in a cemetery, presenting them one after another to my mom. She processed in her way.
So, to introduce 3- to 6-year-olds to the notion that there’s an inevitability to death, I like books that focus on the life cycle, like The Story Goes On by Aileen Fisher. And I like books that discuss the way beauty and kindness show us the presence of God even when bad things happen, like Because Nothing Looks Like God by Lawrence Kushner and Karen Kushner, illustrated by Dawn Majewski. I’m not crazy about most nonfiction books that tackle the whys and wherefores of death (because I want to direct that conversation myself, and because I find the greatest truths in fiction), but I do like the matter-of-factness of When Dinosaurs Die and the non-denominationally Jewish and thoughtful Where Do People Go When They Die? by Rabbi Mindy Avra Portnoy. These books don’t talk about, say, God taking Grandma to live with Him or people becoming angels—common themes in kids’ books about death, but theologically dicey propositions for a lot of us Jews.
When my girls were around 5 or 6, they loved hearing me read Patricia Polacco’s Mrs. Katz and Tush, about an elderly, wary Jewish widow and an African-American boy in her apartment building who gives her a tailless kitten. Mrs. Katz winds up welcoming both the kitten (named Tush, of course) and the boy, Larnel, into her circumscribed life. She shares memories of her husband Myron and their life together, invites Larnel to visit Myron’s grave and place a stone on it, and shares a Passover Seder with him. “Part of the dinner is sad and part of it is happy!” she explains. On the last page of the picture book, we see an adult Larnel, with Mrs. Katz holding his baby and an elderly, fat Tush sitting by their side. She’s no longer lonely. In the end, Larnel places a stone on Mrs. Katz’s headstone.
My kids loved having me read this to them in large part because I sobbed at the ending every time. They weren’t freaked out by my tears. They were a little a little sad, a little thrilled, and a little tickled at the strangeness of seeing my eyes well up and my voice catch. They liked hearing me explain why the book affected me so much. They liked the notions of continuity and memory and liked knowing that the book made me think about Zayde. They felt they knew Zayde, even though he died before Maxie had even been born. They understood, as Mrs. Katz did, that part of life is sad and part of it is happy.
My girls are older now, 7 and 10. It’s hard to find read-alouds that work for both of them and engage me, too. So, maybe it’s not surprising, though I swear it’s coincidental, that the last two bedtime books in our house have been about death. Each Little Bird That Sings, by Deborah Wiles and A Greyhound of a Girl, by Booker Prize-winner Roddy Doyle are both suffused with loss. And both are funny. Wiles’ book is set in a rural Mississippi funeral home run by a family that has just lost its two oldest members. The narrator, 10-year-old Comfort, offers advice to mourners: “Don’t try to hide death from kids,” she tells us. “If Grandpa has died, don’t say, ‘We lost Grandpa,’ because little kids will want to know why you don’t go look for him. Just say, ‘Grandpa died.’ Don’t say ‘Grandpa passed,’ either, because we’ll wonder what grade he was in.” She’s right—euphemisms and elisions do more harm than good. And again, like life, this book is sad, but also happy. Comfort has to deal with terrible things (the author wrote it after a series of shattering losses in her own family), but she knows that rising to the occasion, helping others, and not letting sorrow turn her into a jerk or paralyze her is what menschiness is. (Not that she knows the term. She is as goyish as mayonnaise.)
The Doyle book is a ghost story about four generations of Irish women that makes death seem like a kind of intimacy. Twelve-year-old Mary is facing the imminent death of her beloved Granny, Emer. Then she meets and befriends Tansey, the spirit of Emer’s own mother, who died when Emer was only 3. The book moves back and forth among the stories of Mary, Tansey, Emer, and Mary’s mom Scarlett. It’s clear how Tansey’s untimely death has had an impact on generations. But a wacky, spontaneous road trip undertaken by the four women gives them the chance to talk, joke, and prepare for even more loss. I loved it; the girls merely liked it. “Nothing much happens,” they said. They wanted time travel. I’m older, and I’ve lost more, and the notion of talking with a dead parent felt like the most wonderful kind of time travel to me.
The death of an animal, which many kids experience before the death of a beloved person, can be a good way to prepare kids for loss, and grief, and Yizkor, and there are plenty of books that use this as a jumping off point to start a conversation about death. For picture-book readers, I love Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney (which shows that anger is often part of grieving), and for middle-grade readers, I adore Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog (which shows that not wanting to talk about grief is also normal). Many kids and adults, me included, are moved by the folk-arty paitings and words in Cynthia Rylant’s Dog Heaven, but despite its faux simplicity, I don’t think this book is great for small children who are struggling with the permanence of death (wait, how do dead dogs run around?) or for parents who want a vision that works within Jewish belief systems (it’s very sweet but not very us to say that “every angel who passes by [in Dog Heaven] has a biscuit for a dog”).
But perhaps the greatest children’s book about death is Charlotte’s Web. In my opinion, it is the greatest children’s book about anything. Part of the miracle is that it can be appreciated by 6-year-olds as a read-aloud about animals, and by tweens as a book about growing up and creating a separate identity from their parents. In it, Charlotte the spider, facing her own mortality, tells Wilbur the pig that life will go on after she’s no longer in it. But befriending him, and doing the mitzvah of writing words in her web that has saved his life, has given her life meaning. “After all, what’s a life, anyway?” she asks him. “We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.” And she reassures him, in E.B. White’s gorgeous language, that death is part of the cycle of life. “Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days …”
This Yom Kippur, let’s not rush our kids out of the room at Yizkor time. Let’s share stories of our departed loved ones. Let’s read books that help kids see death as part of life. And let’s think of the meaning of the traditional Yom Kippur benediction, g’mar tov: Finish well. We should finish the year on a note of thoughtfulness and courage.
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Who volunteers to sing in the synagogue choir for Kol Nidre? This year, I joined and found out.