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How to talk to children about shiva

For parents of young children, the death of a loved one might mean bringing a child to their first shiva visit. Regardless of whether children have talked to their parents about death, hearing about a death can spark a broad range of questions and emotional responses. As parents go through their own processes of grieving, deciding how to explain traditions around death, how to support children throughout them or whether to bring them at all can be difficult to navigate. The Forward spoke to psychologist Dr. Robin Goodman to answer some frequently asked questions about children and shiva.

Dr. Robin Goodman is a licensed clinical psychologist, certified trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapist trained in therapy for complicated grief, and registered art therapist. In addition to working with children, adults, and families in her private practice, she serves as the Assistant Director of Public Education and Bereavement at Child HELP Partnership at St. John’s University in New York City. Dr. Goodman has written and developed Caring for Kids After Trauma and Death: A Guide for Parents and Professionals and is the co-author of two children’s books about bereavement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When a loved one dies, how do you introduce the idea of shiva to your child?

Step one is talking to your child about death in general. That’s the reason why there’s shiva. The first conversation is, “What is this about? It’s something that we do after someone dies.” Then it’s about what your child knows about death in general and how you would talk to your child about that.

How would you suggest approaching those conversations?

You need to make it age-appropriate, and you need to listen for what their questions are. What you say to a four or five-year-old is different than what you talk about with a nine or 12 or 13-year-old, because what they understand is very different. The younger the child, the simpler the words and the less information, but always use accurate words. As they get older, you can add more about what it means for someone to die.

I would say to younger kids, “Grandpa died. That means he can’t come back. His body’s not going to work anymore.” I always say that you should use real words. You don’t say “go to sleep.” You don’t say “passed away” or “lost” because those words all mean other things that can confuse or even scare somebody. It helps to use the real words and say, “He died, which means we can visit his grave. We can look at pictures, and we can visit memories.”

Kids’ feelings don’t always have the same frequency or duration as adults’. They may be really quiet and respectful and thoughtful and sad, but then they might say, “Can I go play now?” That’s normal. It doesn’t mean they’re uncaring or unfeeling.

Dr. Robin Goodman

Dr. Robin Goodman Photo by Amanda Sromek

How do you decide if a child should come to a shiva call?

You always want the child to know as much as they can about what it’s going to be like. Explain it like, “There’s going to be a lot of people. We’re going to be sitting down. You’re going to have to be quiet. We’re going to go to their house. Remember when we went there before?” Say as much as you can to explain, so the kid knows what to expect. It’s about giving them preparation and some choices about how to participate.

You always want to check with the family about their wishes. There may be situations where for a family that’s grieving, bringing kids isn’t an option. Maybe there’s something they can do instead, like write a card, or draw a picture about something they remember that they did with Grandma. You can say, “I’m going to bring that and give it to Grandpa when I go to shiva,” if it’s not the right thing for them to be there physically in person.

What are some of the differences in how a child might act at a shiva for someone they were close with versus someone they had less of a relationship with?

One thing to keep in mind is the relationship itself is not always the best predictor of how they’re going to feel. You have the child’s own personality and their preferences. You can’t predict how a child is going to feel, in terms of their closeness to somebody. Again you want to validate a kid’s experience and the reason behind going. Maybe it’s feeling really close to the deceased, and they want to go because that person was important and they feel really sad. Other times, for whatever reason, when they didn’t feel that close, you say, “Even though we didn’t see grandma that often, this is a really kind, respectful thing to do.”

What effect might bringing kids to shiva have on the other mourners?

Shiva should be one of those judgement-free zones, just like any other places where parents bring kids. Adults have a lot of different feelings about kids at shiva. You want to think about the family’s wishes. In terms of other people, kids can provide a lot of things. They can provide a sense of direction for some people. They can be a way to connect and realize how important people are while they’re alive. Kids are the ultimate representation of the circle of life. You mourn a death, but it should remind you of the meaning of life and the continuity of it. Kids can be a helpful reminder that it’s not just about death, it’s about those that are living.

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