Family Matters

How Do Kids Handle Death? Better than Adults

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My kids had their first intimate experience with death last week, and I think it was a  growing experience for all of us.

Their great-grandfather — my maternal grandfather — died earlier this month. He lived a wonderful life and died, if there is such a thing, a wonderful death. He wasn’t in pain. He didn’t suffer. It happened quickly, and my mom was holding his hand. (More on 5 Ways to Stop Stressing)

The first obstacle was how to tell the kids. When they came home from school the afternoon he died, I shared the news with each of them individually. My 3-year-old looked back at me with serious eyes for a few seconds then burst out laughing. Later on, she solemnly shared her understanding of what had happened: “Died means that you can’t play with toys, and you don’t live in a house anymore.” My 8-year-old, at first pensive, soon exclaimed, “Now we get to go to New York!”

New York (and New Jersey), for my kids, is not Times Square, browsing at Bloomie’s or Broadway plays; it’s family — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. And, until last Friday, a great-grandfather who called them “cookieface” and delighted in watching them be loud and messy. He played cards with them and ate Carvel with them and swapped jokes with my son. Mourning aside, from the kids’ perspective, this was going to be fun.

Briefly, my husband and I had debated whether all five of us should fly to New York from our home in Seattle. Last-minute tickets were expensive, and a cross-country flight with kids is never a joyride. But I assumed rightly that my mom would want the kids there to cheer her up, which is one thing kids do really, really well. They recognized and willingly shouldered the responsibility. “That’s our job,” my 8-year-old son announced. (More on Life Expectancy Lags in the U.S., But It May Be on the Upswing)

I waited until after ballet class to tell my 5-year-old. Of all the kids, Shira spent the most time with Zayde. Last year, she accompanied my parents on a trip to Florida — where he wintered — and surprised him by popping out of a blanket where my dad had concealed her. Not long after, she spent a week with him when he came to visit my parents.

She’d known Zayde was sick so she accepted news of his death with equanimity. Why do people die? she wanted to know, so I told her the world isn’t big enough for people to live forever. If they did, I explained, there would be no room for new babies. Then she asked if she could put a picture of herself in Zayde’s coffin. I thought that was a little weird, so I demurred, falling back on that phrase familiar to all parents who want to say no but don’t have the guts to do so: “We’ll see.”

Next up was the funeral itself — bring the kids or leave them with someone? My sister-in-law offered to watch my youngest. My oldest wanted to participate. My middle child did too, until she heard that her little sister would be getting a manicure and doughnuts. As it turns out, I’m glad Shira didn’t go. There was lots of laughter — my grandpa was a very funny man, which generated dozens of laugh-out-loud stories (like the times he unabashedly flirted with the nurses, lied about his age or stole my mom’s rental car after he’d sold his car and pledged to stop driving) — but there was also no shortage of crying, and I think it may have overwhelmed her. Maybe because she wasn’t there, maybe because I decided it wasn’t so weird after all for her to want a picture of herself to accompany her great-grandfather on the next leg of his journey, I handed the rabbi a snapshot of her — of the five of us, actually, because it’s all I had — to bury with my grandpa. (More on Time.comEthics, Shmethics. Teaching Kids Right from Wrong Isn’t Easy)

That evening, as friends and relatives convened for a shiva minyan — a prayer service held nightly for a week after a Jew dies — my daughter’s bubbly 3-year-old voice drifted upstairs to where everyone was gathered: “Why they got to pray for Zayde?”

The man leading the service heard her question. We pray for the soul of the deceased, he explained, but we pray as much for those who are in mourning to be comforted.

For our family, as it turns out, there was no better balm for sorrow than the joy and cacophony of childhood.

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