A Time to Grieve, A Time to Teach

Posted on: Tuesday November 26, 2019

by Dr. Joshua Elkin

A Challenge to Parents and Educators: Teaching Children about Death and Dying

We live during a time when parents and educators are searching for ways in which to instill a sound value system within the minds and hearts of the younger generation. We are also witnessing an explosion of interest in the fostering of spiritual development. Teaching about dying, death, and bereavement provides us with an invaluable opportunity to accomplish both of these goals.

The past quarter of a century has witnessed a noticeable shift within our society from a denial of death to a more open discussion of all matters associated with dying and mourning. Since the late sixties and early seventies, there has been an information explosion on virtually every facet of this broad and significant topic. Many observers from a variety of fields of study came to recognize that our medical advances had contributed to the illusion that death could be avoided, if not eradicated. Some focused attention on the extravagances of funeral practices which tended to mask the stark realities of death. Others attacked the model of stoicism when confronting bereavement in favor of a more open venting of emotions.

The Jewish community has participated in this discussion, helping to create books, films, seminars, and adult and teen study programs which focus on this topic. We have also witnessed various redactions of Jewish practice as they relate to dying, death, and bereavement. In many respects, developments in the Jewish community have been a close reflection of what has transpired in the general society.

Within both the Jewish and general communities, some writers and thinkers in this area of inquiry have focused their attention on children in the pre-teen years. How do children conceive of death? How can they be educated to have a more open and natural attitude toward death? While many of these efforts deserve commendation and have made a difference in the lives of some children and their families, more fundamental work with children is possible and necessary. Furthermore, our society appears poised at a crossroads where there will either be continued intensification of efforts to confront the realities of dying and bereavement, or a retreat from serious engagement with this vital part of the normal life-cycle.

In reality, this aspect of one's life experience is far too rich and significant to be allowed to recede from the center of our educational agendas. We have the opportunity to create educational experiences for our children which will promote the acquisition of fundamental values and foster meaningful spiritual development.

Transmitting Values

What are these values? Jewish tradition is organized around eight major Jewish value concepts which can serve as the unifying principles for any examination of death and bereavement. These eight value concepts are:

  1. the reality of death;
  2. respect for the dead;
  3. equality;
  4. simplicity
  5. the venting of emotions openly and fully;
  6. communal responsibility and support;
  7. affirmation of life (accompanied by a general trust in the world and in its Creator;
  8. remembrance.

The last six values have a place in topics other than death and bereavement. They can serve as organizing frameworks for more extensive units of study which spill into such topics as how Jews worship; the feelings which are associated with various holidays; the role of the community in the life of the individual Jew; the Jewish calendar cycle; and the value of life itself in Judaism. One way to ensure that dying, death, and bereavement have a firm place within our Jewish educational programs is to make certain these six values are anchored within our curricula as overarching themes which span the richness of Jewish life and death practices.

The first two values -- the reality of death and respect for the dead -- are obviously uniquely connected to this one theme of death and bereavement. These values have profound potential to create openings for the serious discussion of the most powerful spiritual questions imaginable. We must first define spirituality and then demonstrate how the values associated with death and bereavement can help to promote spiritual development.

In his Book of Miracles, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner defines spirituality as "a mode of living in which we are constantly aware of God's presence and purpose." We can indeed become more aware of God's presence and purpose through a thoughtful exposure to these two values.

The value of respecting the dead person's body emerges quite straightforwardly from the statement in Genesis that we are created in God's image. We are a reflection of God, and so the human body deserves careful treatment (e.g., performing the taharah - ritual washing, dignified and simple dressing of the body, never leaving the body alone until the actual burial, and not viewing the body).

Jewish tradition encourages a direct confrontation with the reality of death. Burial is swift, and mourners are asked to participate in the actual shoveling of earth to cover the casket and even to fill the entire gravesite. Jewish practice frowns on any effort to camouflage the fact that a death has occurred. This reality principle can push us to explore God's purpose. A true vignette can help to elucidate the connection between the reality of death and an awareness of God's purpose.

A fourth grade class was discussing Jewish practices associated with death and bereavement, following the death of the father of one of the students in the class. After they had covered most of the basic practice and had been prepared for paying a shiva call and re-connecting with their classmate, they invited me to come to class to respond to some lingering questions. These questions included: What happens after this world? Is there an afterlife? Are there different views of the afterlife? The discussion quickly moved to other questions which touched on this mystery of life and the search for God's purpose in the world. What would it be like if human beings knew exactly when they would die? What would it be like if human beings lived forever? Onestudent said quite bluntly that the fact that we live for a short period of time and the fact that we do not know when we will die presents each human being with the mystery which provides the driving force for doing mitzvot in the world. There is a sense of urgency and a need to complete our half of the partnership with God.

A Challenge to Parents and Educators

Teaching about death and bereavement is quite widespread within Jewish education circles, especially under the rubric of a life-cycle course -- usually offered sometime between seventh and tenth grades. While this kind of course serves a valuable function in exposing Jewish children to the practice and wisdom found within Jewish tradition, such courses often fall short of their full potential to help in the transmittal of fundamental values and in the promotion of genuine spiritual development.

If we are to be more successful in this area, parents and educators will need to master these values, as well as techniques for introducing them into educational settings and discussions. The adults within the Jewish community will also need to become more comfortable with speaking about spirituality and with the kinds of deep questions which death can often provoke. Through study, collegial support, and a willingness to take some risks to be open to the difficult questions, we can tap the opportunities which dying, death, and bereavement inevitably present to help nurture a new generation of young Jews who know the fundamental values for which we stand, and who are familiar with the challenge of searching for God's presence and purpose in the world.

Rabbi Elkin is the former Headmaster of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.

Originally published on The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and republished with permission.