Baruch Dayan Emet

treeI’m leaving today for my aunt’s funeral. It’ll be a quick trip to my mother’s place in Baltimore, and then back just  in time for Shavuot (if I’m lucky.) I’m picking up cheesecake for the family at Trader Joe’s before I leave, just in case I’m not back for dinner.
I struggled with the decision of whether or not to take my daughters, 4 and 5, on the trip with me. They had only met my aunt a few times, but had they come, we could have stayed in Baltimore with Bubbe for Shavuot. On the other hand, had they come, they would have needed to attend the graveside funeral with me.
I decided against taking them. I think there is something very powerful, in a good way, about the Jewish ritual of participating in the mitzvah of burial, and tossing a shovelful of dirt in the grave. But I have delayed mentioning the whole concept of burials, and this might not be the most, shall we say, gentle introduction. I’ve explained the neighborhood cemetery as somewhere  to “remember people who have died” and kaddish as a prayer for doing the same thing. That’s about all I’ve said about death. They know it happens, of course. They know which of our relatives have died, and they frequently (perhaps too frequently?) integrate death into their dramatic play. And like any Annie-loving little girls, they totally wish they were orphans.
To me watching a coffin be lowered underground and covered with dirt is potentially terrifying – the stuff of which nightmares are made. But maybe, if they are exposed to this at an early age, they’ll integrate the experience into their world view in a natural, untroubling way. So maybe I’m making a mistake.
What do you think? When, and how much, did you tell your children about death?
May Aunt Thelma’s memory be a blessing.

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Leigh Ann

posted May 27, 2009 at 9:18 am

Zichrona Livracha.
May you be comforted among all those who mourn.

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posted May 28, 2009 at 9:40 am

My husband’s mom, after whom my oldest daughter is named, died shortly before our wedding. Because I want her memory to be a part of our kids’ lives, I try to mention her at appropriate times (“Grandma Sue would really have loved this!” kind of thing) and my oldest, at least, know that she is no is longer alive.
Then when oldest was 4, my husband’s Grandma died and we attended the funeral. The coffin was already in the ground, but everyone did participate in the shovelful of dirt ritual. It wasn’t scary or nightmarish at all, and we talked with her about how it was only her body that was going into the ground; the part of her that made her an alive, thinking, feeling person was not in there anymore. The most touching parts were when we were walking into the cemetary and she was reading the names on the markers: “Weinburg, Levine, Stone…Marks. Hey! Marks! That’s like OUR name!” And then after the burial, everyone was kind of sniffly of course and she said, “Let’s go to Aunt Lainie’s. It’ll be more fun there.”
I don’t know how much she understood, or understands, but it seemed a very natural part of life for all of her beloved family members to be together crying over the passing of someone she knew and loved.
When my grandfather, who lived far away and who the kids had never really met, passed away this January, he didn’t have a traditional funeral, and we didn’t go.
But we talked about him and looked at pictures. Whenever we look at family pictures, I mention that so-and-so in this picture isn’t alive anymore, and that I miss him/her. Death has become a sort of common thread in our family, because so many of my husband’s realtives passed away before they were “old people.” Sad for us, but I think it has made the concept of death (of non-immediate family members) less of a fearful unknown and more just part of life.
Yeah, a “natural and untroubling” thing. But every kid and situation is different. God willing we won’t have the opportunity to introduce the rest of our kids to death for a long, long time.

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Sarah Buttenwieser

posted June 11, 2009 at 10:23 am

I liked reading about how you worked this out (read it last night, too tired then to comment). We went through a lot of death when Ezekiel was preschool/early elementary (my aunt, grandparent loss, two of his friends’ parents, a premature cousin… It was less about ceremony & ritual; the more pressing issues were about loss & uncertainty & his sense of vulnerability. I mean, all was mixed in but that vulnerability was at the crux of his concern.
Us, too, I might add.

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