When I had my son last Friday, I took to Facebook as soon as I emerged from my anesthesia haze to announce his arrival. Weight, height, time of birth: all easy stuff to share. But I paused for a second when typing his name. His middle name is Marshall, after my dad’s brother who…well, died. He drowned as a teenager at summer camp when he was 13. But I couldn’t say all that. In fact, even typing “died” felt harsh and jarring for a happy post. So I went for the more diplomatic, somehow softer “passed away,” which sounded a bit floaty and kinda woo-woo but not as brittle.
I also struggled with how to explain the name to my older son, Andy. He doesn’t know that his Zayde had a brother. And I’m not sure that telling a kid who will probably go to camp soon about a teenager who died (passed away?) at summer camp is very reassuring. As far as he knows, Marshall is a character on “Paw Patrol.”
So how do we use the most sensitive and accurate language around grief, especially when talking to kids? I talked to Rabbi David Kudan from Temple Tiferet Shalom on the North Shore, who specializes in life-cycle issues, and Jes Slavin Connelly, a psychotherapist and longtime Jewish educator, for pointers.
Choose your words carefully
When trying to console someone (or helping your child to console someone), think about how you can “best acknowledge and validate in the most caring and supportive way the reality of the loss,” says Connelly. She’s noticed that people often seem uncomfortable saying “died.” Instead, it’s sometimes easier to say, “I’m sorry to hear about the death of…” or “Sorry for your loss.”
But be careful about saying “passed away.” “Many these days choose, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, or, ‘So sorry to hear that your ___ passed away.’ But ‘passed away’ is essentially a meaningless term. Passed away to where? How? Using more general terms may have the opposite impact of what one intends; by trying to use sensitive language, one is instead choosing language that puts distance between oneself and the reality of the event, and this might make the person in mourning feel that you are uncomfortable or unable to really ‘be’ with them in their true experience of death and grief,” she cautions.
As for kids, Kudan thinks that saying “died” is fine. “It’s more direct to say ‘died.’ Kids are actually more accepting than adults of changes in their lives,” he says.
After all, it’s important to teach kids that death is a natural part of life. Sugar-coating this fact is only going to postpone an inevitable discussion.
“In Judaism, death is considered to be a natural process and part of the cycle of life,” Connelly says.
“Do not mystify [death],” Kudan agrees.
But while the concept of death might be straightforward, the notion of what happens after death is harder to grasp. Kids might want to know where people go once they die, says Kudan, and the Jewish tradition is, of course, agnostic, without a definitive answer.
“We have ideas or hopes but don’t express a good deal of certainty,” he says.
It’s better to ask kids what they think happens after death. “Ask, ‘Where do you think Grandma is?’ Try not to speculate. Let the child express his or her own hopes,” he advises.
Often, kids find it helpful to draw a picture that they can have at a shiva or funeral that expresses their own ideas.