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On Death and Dying, and the Other Things Kids Tend to Ask About

December 16, 2010 By:
Sally Friedman, JE Feature
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Dan Gottlieb

Is God a boy or a girl?

What is a cemetery?

Where do you go when you die?

If you die, will you still love me?

Isn't God supposed to make healthy people?

Ah, the questions kids ask -- and the bewilderment their parents often face in answering them. That was the core focus of a forum last month at Congregation M'kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J., that drew about 50 mothers, fathers and some grandparents seeking honest responses that would satisfy young children.

Addressing those parents were panelists Dan Gottlieb, a practicing psychologist, radio host and author; Richard Selznick, psychologist and director of the Cooper Learning Center at Cooper Children's Regional Hospital in Voorhees, N.J.; and Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel, assistant rabbi at Congregation M'kor Shalom.

The idea for the forum, titled "When Did God Create the Dinosaurs?" came from Cheryl Herzfeld, chair of M'kor Shalom's "tot program," which supports parents of nursery-school-age youngsters.

"So many parents had so many questions, and this seemed an ideal way to approach them," said Herzfeld, who served as the evening's moderator.

From the start, it was clear that children's questions surrounding death and dying were of the greatest concern to participants. Many had already faced the challenge of explaining why grandma died, where she was now and what happened to people's bodies afterward.

Craig Bloom of Cherry Hill, the father of three sons 7 and under, wondered how to begin addressing the concerns children ask about dying.

"The Torah doesn't yell out the answers," said Frenkel, who noted that one guiding principle in appeasing a child is to keep the answer brief and simple. "In Judaism, we do believe that the body and the soul are different, and that the soul rejoins God. It's a concept that children can sometimes grasp, and one that may be comforting," she said.

But kids do wonder at some of the things grown-ups say.

Lynne Rednik, director of early-childhood education at M'kor Shalom, offered a case in point: "I've been to the cemetery and talked to G.G. (great-grandmom)," she mentioned recently to her 6-year-old granddaughter.

The child was astonished.

"Can she hear you?" the little girl asked. Rednik felt chagrined as she fumbled, then answered, "I think she can."

Had she made a mistake in sharing her habit of "talking" to her mother at her grave? Had she done any psychological damage?

She soon got her answer: "Oh good!" said the child. "There are so many things I want to tell her about first grade!"

Selznick said that "one of our fears is that we may never again be able to talk to the person who has died. To allow that connection after death may actually be a comfort to a child."

Too Much Reality?

The issue of imperfection -- the challenged, the wounded, the sick -- often preoccupies children. If they themselves are the victims, the natural instinct is to wonder, "Why me? Why would God do this to me?"

Gottlieb suggested that the "Why me?" question often is not a question, but a statement. "It's about anger and rage, and those are rational emotions," he said. "Anger is a 'judicial' emotion. It's a reaction to injustice."

Audience members were concerned about too much reality for today's younger set, and why others -- from Hitler to the kid next door -- have been so cruel.

"The world can be a mean place," said Selznick, "and all we can do is ensure that our own kids have the right values. They may get hurt -- and they probably will -- but we can't solve all their problems. Out there in the world, they're dealing with people who may not share their values or their conscience."

Frenkel, a proponent of preserving childhood innocence, acknowledged that "there are no religious cookbook answers for everything."

The panelists agreed that getting a child to consciously verbalize real fears is a parental goal, even an obligation. "Kids need to feel felt," said Gottlieb, who stressed that how adults listen to children is just as important as what's said to them.

The so-called "December Dilemma" also came into the discussion. One parent offered a common scenario: A child who is wished a "Merry Christmas" may overdo his explanation that he doesn't observe Christmas -- or may simply feel embarrassed and bewildered.

"I think children start to worry: Is their God better than mine?" mentioned one father who sensed a competition in his son's public-school classroom between Christmas and Chanukah.

While Frenkel acknowledged that December can be a difficult month, she relayed an experience from her own childhood, when her family would drive through their Midwestern neighborhood admiring the beautiful decorations of the neighbors -- and then return home to bask in their own holiday and its beliefs.

"Comparative religion can be wonderfully instructive for children, but it's definitely not about winning or losing, better or worse. At Chanukah, we can rightfully celebrate being in the minority because of its meaning in human history."

 

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