When children experience death
As parents, it is our instinct to shield our children from pain, and unpleasant feelings. We are tempted to gloss over the death of a loved one, "for the children's sake." We might be afraid to include the children in the funeral services or shiva. We might even not want to cry in front of them.
As difficult as it is for grownups to understand death, it is much scarier for a child. They too feel grief, loss, fear and anger.
You know your own child best - but there is a basic human need to come to terms with saying a final "goodbye" to one we love. Denying child this opportunity is very confusing for them.
Your judgment is required in deciding how much participation your child will have in events surrounding a death. Most experts agree that for children who have reached an age of understanding, attending the funeral can be beneficial. Whether or not a child will continue on to the gravesite is another question. A school-age child can tell you himself how he feels about it. In any event, no child should be forced to participate if doing so produces real anxiety.
While there is some solace in attending the loved one to the burial, the feelings of children who are experiencing something closer to hysteria should be respected and supported. Going to see a loved one buried is an opportunity to say goodbye. It is not a "learning experience."
As we all are so helpless in the face of death, our children feel particularly so, and they are not sure what is required of them at this time. It is so comforting for them to be able to talk with you. If at all possible, let them know how much they have meant to the deceased, and how much it means to you to have them to hold at this time. You may encourage them to talk, and tell their own stories about their own relationship to the loved one. The seven days of shiva are a perfect opportunity for this.
As Jewish mourners, we recognize that when we weep, we weep for ourselves - we will miss the company of the one we loved. It is helpful to make this clear to our children. Death itself, in the tradition, is not something to be feared or hated. It is simply a move to another state of being. The problem is that we move at different times. (This is when the death occurs at the end of a long, full, life. For tragic deaths, due to violence, or accident, it is harder to come to terms.)
Celebrating the memory of a loved one can be very important. We think about lost loved ones often, it is important to children to see people remembered, and not "erased." Lighting a candle with your child on the anniversary of a death of a close relative can be affirming. On birthdays of deceased family members, it helps to have a meal or "party," in their honor, and perhaps look at pictures, and tell stories. Such rituals can show the children that noone we love is forgotten. It is a celebration of our dear, lost loved one, and of ourselves, and our children, as survivors. Such rituals can become a celebration of life itself, and can help children move on, but keep memory alive.
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