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Falling Down

How to talk to kids about death, in Haiti and at home

Marjorie Ingall
February 01, 2010
“Scary Sleep Book,” drawn by Josie Ingall at age 5.(Courtesy Marjorie Ingall)
“Scary Sleep Book,” drawn by Josie Ingall at age 5.(Courtesy Marjorie Ingall)

Last week, Maxie, my 5-year-old daughter, came home from school talking about the Haitian earthquake. “The houses fell on the people and they got squashed and now the children have no mommies,” she told me.

The previous week, I’d explained to Maxie and Josie, her 8-year-old sister, that there was an earthquake far away and that Daddy and I were sending tzedakah money to help the people. Did they want to do the same? They did. We’d emptied their tzedakah box and brought its contents to a fundraising drive for Partners in Health at school. But, you know, I’d never mentioned death. Now Maxie is ruminating a lot: Can we go to Haiti? What happens if our house falls down? Why don’t we have earthquakes in New York? Do we know anyone who died in an earthquake? Zayde is dead, but he didn’t die in an earthquake.

And suddenly I realized that while I’d had a sit-down conversation about death and grieving with Josie when she was just shy of 3, I’d never done so with Maxie. When Josie was in preschool, my dad died. Josie saw me crying, saw Bubbe crying. We explained that Zayde had died, which meant we couldn’t see him anymore. Like the flowers in our garden that wither and fade and get absorbed back into the earth, Zayde would be buried and we’d remember how he looked and what he did even after he was gone. Josie didn’t really get it. For weeks she said, “That’s Zayde!” whenever the phone rang. She went through a period of drawing Zayde’s corpse—with Xs for eyes!—and giving the pictures to my mom.

Maxie knows that Zayde was her grandfather, and that he died when Josie was little. She seems to grasp that “dead” means “ceased to be,” like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch. But does she actually understand?

Probably not. Experts say that until age 5 or so, kids can’t really comprehend the permanence of death. They still think they can outwit it. Maxie loves a book called Just a Minute by Yuyi Morales, about a grandmother tricking Senor Calavera—Death, in the form of a Day of the Dead skeleton—into not taking her quite yet. To me the story is sweetly, deliciously creepy and just a little sad, but to Max it’s all-out hilarious and satisfying. That makes sense, developmentally—kids her age tend to personify death: a skeleton, Voldemort, the Malach HaMavet. It’s not until age 9 or 10 that kids really grasp that death is concrete, permanent and inevitable for all living things.

So how do I address Maxie’s anxiety about death, disaster, and loss? Psychologist Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a parenting therapist in Toronto, says it’s not too late to reassure her. “Generally when small children ask about death, they’re really asking about separation—they don’t want to think that no one is going to look after them,” she says. “So you could say, ‘I probably won’t die for a very long time, but if something happened there would always be someone to take very good care of you.’” Radcliffe, who is religiously observant, continues, “If you use this language, you can add, ‘and eventually you will join me in Olam Haba.’”

I pressed Radcliffe to elaborate on how Orthodox Jews might explain death to kids. And as she spoke of a soul suddenly expanding, and of the joy of being reunited with Hashem, I felt jealous. I longed for that kind of confidence and serenity. Sure, I believe in God, but in the most nebulous God-is-some-kind-of-force-uh-I-don’t-know let’s-talk-about-social-action kind of way.

Delving too deeply into questions about suffering makes me twitchy. The notion of the Haitian earthquake having some heavenly purpose we can’t understand doesn’t work for me. The vastness of human suffering is too confounding to wave away with soothing words about God’s unknowable will. But neither am I comfortable throwing the Big Guy out with the bathwater.

But it is possible to talk about death and grief without bringing God into the conversation, says Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. When I asked him how to address Maxie’s shpilkes, he handed the question to his 8-year-old son, who replied: “When people die they don’t go to an afterlife and nobody ever sees them again. Their skin and bones decompose into the soil.” Schweitzer told his son that this answer might not be comforting to a child, and his son replied, “But they’ll always be alive in your heart.” For humanistic Jews, that answer has to suffice, because that’s all there is. To Schweitzer, telling a child ”I don’t know what happens after we die” is often a cop-out. “As parents, we have a responsibility to lay out a picture of the world as we see it and help shape a worldview for our kids,” he argues. “Waffling is not a good thing if it really just avoidance of a tough topic.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s a parent’s responsibility to figure out what a child is really asking. Did Maxie want to know about what would happen to the children of Haiti, whether it would be possible to go see the devastation, whether we could go there to try to help out? “The first rule is find out what they already know about a subject,” Schweitzer suggests. “Be Jewish. Ask a question back. Remember the story of the child who asked a parent, ‘Where did I come from?’ and the parent thought this was an invitation for a lesson on sex, when the answer the kid really wanted was, ‘You came from Cleveland’?”

Funny. And good advice. But just as the full-on no-ambivalence omnipotent-and-good God version of Judaism isn’t my scene, the no-God version isn’t either. How to navigate these shoals is the subject for another column (or a dissertation, or an entire cosmology), but whatever your Jewish or theistic perspective, here are a few ground rules when talking about death with kids: don’t say things like “Grandma went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” unless you want your child never to put her head on a pillow again. Don’t say “Savta died because she was very old” because when a young person your child knows dies—as one inevitably will—it will rock that child’s world. (“Old and sick” is probably okay, if it’s true, as long as you clarify that most people who are sick do get better.) Don’t dismiss a child’s feelings of anger, be shocked by a child’s expressiveness—say, when she draws your father as a corpse every day for two weeks—or think a kid is being selfish if he makes death “all about him.” Anger is a legitimate emotion, kids process in their own ways, and the young are supposed to be self-absorbed. It’s in the rulebook. When your child feels helpless—as kids so often do, since they can’t even tie their own shoes—helping others is a good antidote. Encouraging kids to give tzedakah, make pictures for rescue teams or kids in hospitals, or donate toys to shelters can make them feel more in control. And when a relative or friend dies, sharing memories can keep them alive in our memories, as Rabbi Schweitzer’s son so wisely said.

Radcliffe offered a wonderful suggestion I intend to use with my kids in the future. She mentioned that we can tell older kids that research into near-death experiences shows that death is a peaceful, joyful experience. I can personally testify that this is true. In my 20s I had an anaphylactic allergic reaction and almost died. I passed out, stopped breathing, and was intubated by paramedics only in the nick of time. And I distinctly remember that as I lost consciousness, my feelings of terror evaporated. I felt warm, comfortable, elated. Suddenly I felt that I had enough air, though I didn’t. I saw a beautiful kaleidoscope and felt joy. Literature on such experiences is rife with stories like mine. I remember my dad, a doctor, explaining the medical reasons for most of what I felt. But hey, even if the common vision of a tunnel is caused by lack of oxygen in the brain causing compression of the optic nerve, isn’t it miraculous that the moment of death is happy and optimistic? Maybe this is evidence of God’s work and kindness, maybe it’s just a marvy trick of evolution, but it’s soothing either way.

Finally, consider that kids’ experiences of loss really aren’t that different from ours. A recent piece in The New Yorker about grief mentioned the work of 1970s psychiatrist and bereavement expert Colin Murray Parkes, who compared the physical sensations of mourning to what a child feels during separation anxiety. Death makes us feel alarmed because—like little children yearning for a parent who’s left the room—we’re unmoored from what we once relied on. And we keep searching for the missing person until we’ve finally created a new world without that person. It is what it is.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.