I just received one email this week that a member of my synagogue passed away, and another email announcing that a family member of a child that I do not know at my daughter’s elementary school, died. I am turning 45 and such news is getting more frequent. I used to read these and feel uncomfortable. Other friends have the same reaction: we hear of the death of a Jewish acquaintance, colleague, client, classmate, or synagogue member, think “how sad”, and start wondering, “Well, what do I have to do?” I chose Judaism in my twenties, so I figured I just had less experience with death. But when I sought advice, everyone I spoke with agreed that guidance for these times is useful for everyone.
One thing I learned was that your kids can be important healers for the mourners. People pay attention to the adult mourners, but the children in the family are also in mourning. Kids don’t forget their feelings of being ignored when their loved one dies. My friend’s son Zev told me: “When my grandmother died people acted like I (11 yrs old) wasn’t even there. They didn’t say anything to me.” My friend Julie recalled that when she lost her grandmother as a young adult, some of her friends didn’t pay a shiva call, and it hurt.”
I realized that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not the only life cycle event Jewish kids should know about. A friend who worked in hospice recommends that children attend a shiva, to start a healthy conversation about the cycle of life, allowing you to model respect and love and also to bring their sweetness into a home that needs it. Here are some tips I have learned:
1-When you make a shiva visit or attend a funeral, coordinate with another friend to go with you as it reduces the awkwardness as you wait to give your condolences, and any kids in tow can be more easily involved/distracted. With kids, you should know that it’s OK and actually preferable to make a very short visit (even 10 minutes is OK).
2- Do bring quiet toys, like dolls, stuffed animals, or books (and snacks too if they’re needed). Explain what has happened and show your older children how to shake hands or give a hug and say “your loss matters to me and I care.” They can hear a great story if you ask the mourner to recall something about their parent/family member when your friend was the age of your child.
3-You can expect your teens or tweens to be helpful and learn some etiquette by asking them to identify and choose a way to be supportive: for example, walk or play with a dog, take little kids outside to play, or help you set up or clean up. It feels great to be busy and eliminates awkwardness.
4-Model the art of the condolence note. If they are too young or too shy to write, they can illustrate their own memories spent with the person, or draw pictures that express friendship with the mourner. You can write for them something like: “You are my friend and you must be sad. I’m sorry your [grandma] died.”
5-My kids have gone with me to buy shiva food and must haves like paper towels, napkins and other basics, deliver a basket of breakfast bagels and coffee, and drop off a dinner with some extra freezer bags or containers to show you care. You can surprise and support a mourner positively by doing this any time in the month or beyond. Kids can accompany you to donate extra food from the shiva to a soup kitchen or shelter.
6-Kids can be company for the children or grandchildren of the mourners. The day my daughter and I (4th grade) attended the funeral of a grandmother of her classmate, my daughter kept her friend company and helped set up the food for that family for a very small funeral and shivah led to a special level of friendship that we both will always treasure.
Tradition dictates certain customs but people may need different things, and ask for different kinds of help because mourning is, after all, personal. So be thoughtful and note if you are helping or if you are in the way. Say,” I’m here, I want to help,” observe what might be needed and most importantly: do it with your child. It’s a blessing for everyone.