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Monthly Jewish Value: Death and Bereavement

By Kathy Bloomfield

When my grandmother passed away, my nephew Michael was 4 years old. He had not visited his Noni (our Italian family’s name for great-grandma) in the hospital, nor had he attended her funeral, so there had been no goodbyes. The tears, funeral rituals and visitors came and went. Life moved on. Shortly after, Michael, a well-behaved, mild-mannered child, began acting out at home and preschool. He was clearly angry about something, but he wouldn’t talk about it.

We had properly and respectfully laid my grandmother to rest, but Michael was clearly bereaved and needed some attention. At last, after a gentle, question-filled conversation with his mom, the truth came out. Noni had moved from an inland apartment to an apartment by the beach, and then she died. Michael’s family had recently moved from the same inland city to a house by the beach, so Michael believed they were going to die as well. In Michael’s case, reading “Lifetimes” (see below) with his parents, shedding a lot of tears, dictating a goodbye letter to Noni and visiting the cemetery put everything in order for him.

Though death is a topic many parents hope to avoid discussing with children for as long as possible, the day comes when the goldfish is floating on top of the fishbowl, the neighbor’s dog visits the vet for the last time or grandma dies after a long illness. The conversation regarding the cycle of life and, most important, the mitzvah (good deed) of L’vayat Hameit (assisting the dead and the bereaved) becomes inevitable.

created at: 2012-02-27The following books are excellent resources for discussing this important lifecycle event and its accompanying mitzvot with young children:

Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie. Ages 3-7. In this simple yet beautiful book with gorgeous illustrations, the idea that everything has a beginning and an ending and a lifetime in between is explained in a way that even a young child can comprehend.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did you feel after reading this book?
  • What do people share with every living thing?
  • What affects how long something or somebody will live?
  • How old is the oldest person in your family?

created at: 2012-02-27Where is Grandpa Dennis? by Michelle Shapiro Abraham. Ages 6-10. In this highly sensitive and beautifully illustrated book, a young girl wants to know about her grandfather who died long before she was born. As her mother explains Jewish traditions, such as placing a rock on the gravestone and lighting a yahrzeit (anniversary) candle for remembering a loved one who has died, she searches for the best way to explain where Grandpa Dennis is now. Together mother and daughter discover an answer that feels right for them.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did you feel after reading this book?
  • Where do you think souls go after people die?
  • Who are you named for and what do you know about that person?
  • What traits or hobbies do you share with the person you are named after?

created at: 2012-02-27When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. Ages 5-9. This excellent book discusses the difference between alive and dead, the different religious and cultural death customs and how a person might feel about the death of a loved one or pet. It’s a great resource for parents.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did you feel after reading this book?
  • Describe, in your own words, the difference between being alive and being dead.
  • What are your family’s customs when someone dies?

created at: 2012-02-27The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Ages 5-9. When Barney the cat dies, his owner must think of 10 good things to say about him at the backyard funeral. He can only come up with nine until his dad helps him think of a very special 10th.

Discussion Questions:

  • How did you feel after reading this book?
  • The boy in the book is very sad that Barney died. How do you know he’s sad?
  • Why do you think the boy chose the specific “good things” he did?
  • What do you think about Barney’s last “good thing”?

Additional out-of-print picture book worth looking for in your local library or online (try abebooks.com, betterworldbooks.com and amazon.com):

A Candle for Grandpa: A Guide to the Jewish Funeral for Children and Parents by David Techner and Judith Hirt-Manheimer provides an excellent and detailed explanation of the Jewish mourning process for families with young children.

Happy reading!

Kathy Bloomfield founded the website forwordsbooks: kids books that matter in 2009 to highlight and review kids' books that espouse Jewish values. As a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee, Kathy has previewed many children's books published in the past several years. For more information or for book guidance for your family, please email Kathy at kathyb@forwordsbooks.com.

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