The overarching teaching in Judaism is that death is as an integral part of life; it is sad when it happens early in life, and a blessing when it occurs in old age. As the Hebrew Bible states repeatedly, “You came from dust, and to dust you shall return” (e.g., Gen. 3: 19; Eccl. 3: 20; 12:7). During most of the biblical period, death was considered final. As Job states, “He that goes down to the grave shall come up no more” (7:9). It is only around the 2nd cent. BCE, (cf. Dan. 12:2) and later on in the early rabbinic period (M San. 10:1) that the belief in resurrection began to appear in classical Jewish texts. Today some Jews believe in resurrection; others, like me, do not.
Death is a crisis that needs to be faced by all the members of the family, each according to his/her understanding. Even though young children believe in phantasies and have a hard time relating to death as final, they do know that flowers dry up, leaves fall and pets die. It is the job of the adults to help them deal with this reality and not reinforce false expectations.
How to tell them? I suggest you tell them as soon as possible. In reality how you inform them is more important than what you say. Say it with love, with concern, with a sincere sentiment of sorrow. Do not give too many details and allow them to ask questions. Mourning is appropriate for all ages. It is normal to cry and to show emotion. Allow the children to express their feelings. As you mourn, so they will.
Be aware of some possible reactions: Some kids will deny it: “I don’t believe it.” Others may have bodily distress: “I can’t sleep.” Some could turn hostile: “How can he do this to me?” or, even place blame on others: “It is the doctor’s fault he died;” even on oneself, “It is because of me.” Some children could begin to idealize the deceased: “he was a perfect daddy.” Others could turn to panic: “Who will take care of me now?” In every case reassure them with kind words. Do not raise unreal expectations. If you do not know the answer, simply say, “I do not know.” This is better than lying.
A few don’ts:
1. Do not try to cover it up or minimize the reality of death by saying, “He is now in heaven” or, worse, “God took her.” You don’t want to create false hopes or turn people against God and religion.
2. Do not tell young children, “You are now the man/woman of the house.” This is too big a burden to carry at this stage.
3. Do not use the kids as replacement for your loss by sharing the bed room and other personal items.
Should children attend the funeral service?
Explain what will happen during the funeral: how the covered casket will be brought into the sanctuary or left in the foyer; who will speak and sing; how the immediate family and friends will then go to the cemetery, and how the casket will be lowered in an open grave and covered with dirt. (In case of cremation, how to body will be taken to a crematorium and turned to ashes). Be guided by their wishes. Maybe they want to come to the funeral parlor but not go to the cemetery. That is all right too.
After the funeral and/or burial, inform the school, religious institution and other programs in which the children are active. And then help them return to a new life without the presence of the deceased. Depending on the circumstances, this may take more time.
Even though we are sorry to have lost a dear one, most people have the capacity to live with memories, and to do honor to the deceased by the way we live our lives.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D