Generally, when your child asks you a question about death, it follows the loss of someone or some animal who was part of your life. Not only is it difficult to discuss death with your children at any time, it is much more complicated when dealing with your own emotional upheaval or loss. Are you sure what happens after death? How do you tell your children that these are just your beliefs and that you are not sure? How do you discuss the topic without creating anxiety or insecurity?
Recently, I visited a beloved aunt who I hadn’t seen for a few years. Unfortunately, at 86 she is no longer the vibrant and empathetic woman I have loved all my life. Her mental functioning has deteriorated, she has withered away physically and is now just an empty shell. She is no longer aware of her surroundings and there is a bright yellow DNR on the refrigerator in her daughter’s home where she is living. My aunt has grown older amongst her family. They watched her age and loved and cared for her as it gradually happened. They have treated her with the same dignity and respect she modeled for them. They are now prepared for her passing. It will be sad to say goodbye forever, but she is already gone. This will be another stage of the lifecycle.
It is important for our children to understand that death is a natural part of any lifecycle. Hopefully by the time the death occurs, the lifecycle has been completed. Unfortunately that’s not always the case and we sometimes have to have tough and emotionally difficult conversations. It’s important not to hide your sadness, vulnerability and uncertainty from your children, as we are all human. As much as death is a part of life, so is our lack of uniformity of beliefs about death. When discussing death with your children, share your beliefs, share your sadness and vulnerability, and encourage them to talk about and own their feelings. Let them learn that time brings about some healing and a new reality that allows us to move on.
Dedicated with love to my great aunt Irene, who taught me all I know about bearing human suffering with dignity and grace and treating everyone with kindness.
Sue Penn is the mother of three, Director of Congregational Learning at University Synagogue, president of Jewish Reconstructionist Educators of North America and a member of the Jewish Educators Assembly.