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How to Talk to Kids About Death

Valuable lessons I learned from rabbis, friends, and Stephen Colbert

Jamie Betesh Carter
March 08, 2024

“Mommy, who’s your dad?” my 4-year-old daughter asked me recently as I was helping her choose her clothes before school.

“My dad was Saba Shaul,” I said, using the Hebrew word for “grandfather,” unsure where this conversation was going.

“He lives in heaven, right?”

“Yes, I think he does … I’m so glad he got to meet you when you were a baby. He loved you so much.”

“Me, too. But I’m sad he didn’t get to see me like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like how I am now—a big girl writing, singing, and dancing. And he didn’t get to meet my little brother.”

“I’m really sad about that, too, but I think he can see you from up there,” I said as the tears poured down my face and I scanned the room for a tissue.

“Do you think he can hear me?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” I said as I turned away from her to wipe my tears. “But he definitely still loves you.” I forced a smile and hugged her tightly.

This conversation, or some variation of it, happens about once a month between my daughter and me. Our family has dealt with a lot of loss. It’s built into our daily lives, as my father and mother-in-law have passed away. Having young children, my husband and I are constantly trying to figure out the “right” way to explain death to our children in an age-appropriate, effective way.

Here’s what I imagined would happen: We’d have one “big” conversation where I’d lay it all out there, maybe there’d be some crying and confusion, but at the end, my kids would understand the concept of death.

Here’s what really happens: They ask big questions all the time, I fumble, tears fill my eyes, they get more confused, and no one leaves satisfied.

My mother-in-law died just before I became pregnant with our daughter, and my father passed away when she was 9 months old. I thought I was doing a great job at trying to keep our parents as part of our lives spiritually, while letting our kids know their saba and savta are no longer physically with us. We’ve talked about heaven, and how they live in our hearts. It all seemed to work—until it didn’t. As my children grow, so do their minds, their questions, and their understanding of the world around them. I understand that my daughter’s repeated questions are part of her trying to make sense of her world, and she can sometimes become confused.

Now that my daughter is almost 5, and her curiosity about death and our parents have become more sophisticated, I’ve started searching for answers, and the “right” way to explain the concept of death. What would be the best way? What would be the Jewish way? Everything I read takes the emotion out of it, and doesn’t really acknowledge that the parent trying to explain it is often trying to process it and figure it out for themselves at the same time. I set out to figure this out for our family. I spoke to rabbis, social workers, and friends. I read books for adults, children’s books, and listened to podcasts, all to find a way for our children to understand the death of our parents in an age-appropriate way.

My first search led me to Rabbi Jen Gubitz, who runs Modern JewISH Couples. She trained in chaplaincy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and wrote her thesis on Jewish death education for children. She was comforting and easy to talk to about such a sensitive topic. Early in our conversation, she helped me understand that even though my daughter didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of death, it wasn’t an entirely new topic to her. “I think parents are often afraid to talk about death at all, but kids see it all of the time. They see it everywhere as bugs and plants die,” she said. “And so it’s very much a part of their lived experience.” I quickly realized Gubitz was right. I wasn’t responsible for introducing this concept to her, and could build on what she’s already learning in her own world.

Gubitz also helped me uncover why I was so scared to talk to my kids about the death of their grandparents. “Adults have a very interesting way of distracting ourselves,” she said. “Because it’s easier to feel joy, and focus on what we can control, than is it to actually live through grief.” She was right. As I sat with her words, I realized how much I was avoiding these discussions, and how in turn, I wasn’t providing what my kids needed at the moment.

“Sometimes people don’t want to talk about [death] until they have to, and then when they need to talk about it, they’re in a state of their own grief,” Gubitz said. “That makes it very difficult to help kids. And kids may experience that as silence or shame for being curious.” The last thing I’d want to do is have my children feel shameful for asking about their grandparents.

One truly important lesson I learned from Gubitz was making sure my kids felt safe when discussing death. “Sometimes the question kids ask isn’t really what they’re asking,” she said. “Sometimes the question is more in line with ‘Grandma’s gone, so are you going to be gone, too?’ which is really a question of ‘Am I safe?’” Here’s where it gets tricky, as it’s important to be truthful while also not sounding scary. Gubitz encouraged me to emphasize that most people do live until they’re much older, and that sometimes people’s bodies stop working. I may have to reveal, and relive, some details about our parents’ death, but as long as I’m honest and present in the conversation, my kids will know they can come to me with their questions about death, and even though I may not always have answers, I’m their safe place to explore it.

Lastly, Gubitz made sure to reinforce that it’s OK to not have answers to these big questions for myself, and for my kids. “Maybe it’s OK to just be really in touch with the grief more than having the answers,” she said. She reminded me of the power of imagination, and how much children use their sense of wonder to navigate the world at young ages. “I think kids understand wonder more than we do. They have such a strong ability to have awe. And then we slowly beat it out of them with answers and truth.”

It was also important to me to make sure the way I was discussing death with my children was in line with how we live our lives Jewishly. In Judaism, it is believed that the soul leaves the body after death, and may contain eternal life and live on forever. This was enough to give me the push to continue talking about my father, speaking up when something reminds me of him, and allowing him into our lives even though he died. We’re about to light the yahrzeit candle to honor the anniversary of his death. And to honor his life and the generous man he was, my kids will be giving tzedakah.

I took so much from our conversation. I learned that my job isn’t to provide answers I don’t even have myself, I learned that I need to make sure my kids feel safe when asking these big questions, that I should never stay silent, and that I should feed into their wonder.

Gubitz introduced me to Jennifer Kaplan, the founder of Jeff’s Place, an organization that offers hope and healing in a supportive community for grieving children, teens, families, and individuals. She’s a clinical social worker, and someone who dealt with grief at a young age when her teenage brother died. I was eager to hear her thoughts on how to approach the topic of death in my family.

Right away, Kaplan assured me that while my daughter’s continuous questions felt repetitive to me, they were completely normal: “If your daughter keeps asking if she’s going to see her grandfather, it’s understandable because kids her age don’t yet have a sense of understanding of the finality of death.” What Kaplan said made complete sense to me. Once I looked into it more, I learned that kids just start to understand the concept of death between 3 and 5 years old, and don’t really understand the permanence of it until they’re about 10.

My job isn’t to provide answers I don’t even have myself.

Additionally, Kaplan really helped me understand the power of language when discussing death with my children. It took me a while to feel comfortable using the word “death” with my kids. And I realized maybe that’s because it was hard for me to verbalize the finality of it myself. “In training, there’s an old cartoon that we use,” said Kaplan. “It’s a picture of a toddler tugging at the parents’ pants. The parent says, ‘We lost grandpa,’ and the child says, ‘Well, let’s just go find him.’ It shows us that how you use language and words is very, very important. Similarly, especially with little kids, you’d never want to say that someone is ‘sleeping’ when they die, because I promise you, that kid is going to end up having sleep problems.” Kaplan assured me that kids are actually quite capable of understanding the language of death and bereavement when we speak to them in honest, developmentally appropriate ways. To get there, Kaplan recommended using children’s books as a resource.

So I bought a few of the titles that Gubitz and Kaplan recommended. Some seemed like they could be great resources as my kids get older, but felt too advanced for my toddler and preschool-age kids. One book, A Complete Book About Death For Kids by Earl Grollman, taught me the idea of “biggest sad”—a constructive way of explaining the type of sadness we feel when someone dies—as well as age-appropriate ways to describe what it means to be dead.

I also turned to PJ Library, one of my favorite Jewish resources for my children. Their books come in handy in teaching my children about Jewish holidays, values, and concepts, but I didn’t remember ever seeing a book sent to us about death, so I reached out to find out more. I connected with Alex Zablotsky, the executive director of PJ Library, who explained that because of their distribution model (sending free, high-quality Jewish children’s books to families every month), they don’t curate books focused on death in their rotation. “We want to avoid situations where a child opens a book and starts a conversation that their parent isn’t ready for,” said Zablotsky. “We’re not trying to pretend death doesn’t exist. Our goal is to support parents by giving them the tools and confidence to parent Jewishly.” PJ Library includes links and book recommendations on their site for parents to use.

Next, I turned to Jill, one of my closest friends. She’s a clinical social worker specializing in children and adolescents, and experienced the loss of her sister at a young age. “Since my boys never met my sister, I’m always thinking of ways to keep her memory alive,” she said. Every year on the anniversary of Jill’s sister’s death, Jill and her sons write a message on a balloon and release it into the sky.

Jill encouraged me to feed into my children’s curiosity around death rather than trying so hard to define it for them. “One thing we focus on is learning how to sit with uncertainty,” she said. “I want them to feel like it’s OK to not know, because we really don’t know. Death can be scary, but it can also be magical. I want them to explore and not just focus on the scary parts.” Perhaps it’s because she’s a dear friend, but her words resonated profoundly with me. The concepts and ideas we discuss shift my thinking from needing to define death for my children, to recognizing and exploring that there’s more beyond death. It gave new meaning to the idea that even though someone’s dead, we can still keep them alive.

She encouraged me to continue telling the stories, and show the photos. I constantly point out the similarities our children have to our parents. We tell our daughter how her smile reminds us of her savta. We tell our son how his grunts remind us of his saba. We call pajamas “PG’s,” as my dad would say. It’s important, as Jill said, to make sure they know that there are some things that connect us, even through life and death.

Jill also helped me understand more about the reasons why my daughter continues to ask new questions about where her deceased grandparents are every few weeks. “As kids mature, develop and learn the world from different perspectives they understand death in a different way, and therefore more questions get raised,” she said. “Their world keeps getting bigger, and they’re constantly trying to repackage this concept from their new perspective.” It’s important, she told me, to embrace the curiosity. So while the constant questions from my daughter may be painful for me at the moment, I’m learning that’s part of what keeps him part of our lives these days.

All of my conversations and reading about death felt like a crash course in grief itself. I felt much more equipped to handle this as a parent than before. But it was one resource that truly blew my mind. On Anderson Cooper’s podcast All There Is, he interviews Stephen Colbert about grief. Colbert’s words affected me in a way that nothing else had: “If you’re grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it,” he said. My heart stopped as I heard him say those words. Be grateful for the death of my father? How could he say such a thing? “I want to be the most human I can be, and that involves acknowledging and ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen because they gave me a gift,” he said.

As I listened, I started writing his words down voraciously. What gift did my dad give me by dying? My mindset started to immediately shift. I’ve definitely become a more present person since he died. I’ve become more empathetic, and I’ve become more grateful for what and who we do have in life for sure. I think it actually made me a better parent as well. “Grief can become a form of wisdom about your human experience,” Colbert went on to say. I’ve listened to this podcast episode countless times. I would have never put the words grateful and grief together, until now. Can I be grateful for the endless questions from my kids because that’s what helps keep the memory alive?

Colbert’s words resonated with me because I felt he really understood what it’s like in those difficult moments of carrying my own grief while trying to parent and help my children negotiate theirs. “The juxtaposition between the grief of the world and the beauty of the world is ecstatically agonizing,” he said. The circle of life may not always make sense to me, or my kids, but losing life, and creating life is all part of life. And while I often wish it wasn’t, it is, and for that, I’m grateful.

I’ve learned so much during this process of trying to understand grief. My mindset has shifted, and I feel more confident approaching this as a parent. Don’t get me wrong; I cry a lot. I still can’t get through a conversation about my father without crying—“happy tears,” as my kids call it. I’m even crying right now as I write this article.

I’m not a talker, I’ve never been one. I’d much prefer to write a 3,000-word essay exploring death than have a spontaneous conversation with my very curious children about death. But what I’ve learned through this process is that what I have to do is precisely what I like to avoid: talk. I have to talk to my kids about my dad, remind them how funny and quirky he was. I have to keep his memory alive, and I have to talk about death and what it means for his physical self to no longer be here. Most importantly, I have to let them do the talking and question-asking, and I have to make sure we all know it’s OK to not know the answers.

Grief has definitely made me a harder shell of the fun, carefree person I once was. I do feel like I’m not as happy-go-lucky as some of the other new parents I meet, and my face shows it. And I can’t stand when people complain about their parents or in-laws. “What I wouldn’t give for just an hour with our deceased parents,” I want to say. But it’s also made me softer. I’m not sure that without the heavy grief I carry, would I realize or appreciate all the lessons my father taught me now that he’s gone. Even though he’s dead, and barely got to know me as a parent, he’s still teaching me more about parenting than any book, class, or podcast. I hear his voice constantly, and am just now understanding why he said the things he said, and why he did the things he did as a father.

Last week, approaching the fourth anniversary of my father’s death, my daughter asked about our plans for the weekend. I told her we were going to shul (which is something we don’t often do). She asked why? I told her it’s to honor the anniversary of Saba Shaul’s death. Her face lit up. “Is he going to be there?” she asked. Her words stung. “I wish he could be there,” I said. “But he won’t be, and we’ll be thinking of him, and celebrating his life.”

I think about the phrase my friends and family frequently said to me in the days after my dad died: “May his memory be a blessing.” Just now, after four years, I am learning what that means. I’m learning to be grateful for all that this grief is giving me, and that memories can in fact become blessings.

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.