My nephew L’s public elementary school principal just died unexpectedly. She wasn’t old, and it was very sudden. The school closed for an afternoon so everyone could go to a memorial service. He’s upset … as any 9-year-old kid would be. His family lives near my parents, in Virginia, so, when my brother called for grandparent backup, they went right over. They needed to help my nephew start learning and talking about death.
This is so hard, but, in some ways, we are lucky. Judaism has rituals, information and thousands of years of coping with this topic. We can joke about it, sure, but nobody comes out of this thing called life alive. Better to have some things in place ahead of time, so you’re ready for it.
There are those who try to protect kids from sad or upsetting events, and keep them home and shelter them from funerals. This is a disservice to kids, who need to learn how these things work. I experienced several deaths and attended funerals as a little kid, as close family and friends died. Watching my family members mourn, going through shivah and attending services with them to say Kaddish helped me get a grip on the losses of people I loved, even though I wasn’t old enough to do much of this myself.
By comparison, my husband didn’t lose close family members until he was a young adult in his twenties. He didn’t have a deep understanding of traditional Jewish practices, about what would happen and how. In a short span of time, he lost all his grandparents and his mother. Going through the rituals, attending services to say Kaddish and to mourn his mother, was very hard. It was a long year, and we were in grad school, far away from family. However, we used those rituals as a crutch, and it helped us get through it together.
Although my mom is retired, she worked as a Jewish educator and administrator for many years. She still helps manage arrangements for the sale of Jewish burial plots for her Virginia congregation. My mom often helps people as they deal with a sudden death, a long illness or another difficult situation. She was recently invited to talk to the Grade 6 religious school class as they studied Jewish mourning and death.
It turned out that L’s older brother, age 12, was in that class. Although he recognized many of the pictures in my mom’s presentation, he said he learned some new things, too. He recognized the 140-year-old cemetery in Alexandria, where he visits and helps out sometimes. My mom covered basic traditions, but she also talked about how we can comfort friends who lose grandparents – the real details that help us cope with loss. Most poignant for me, though, was the new story my mother told me that she’d mentioned in the class. It was a way to help kids learn to support friends with their losses.
When my mom was 12, there was a phone call in the middle of the night. She heard her dad crying, which she’d never heard before. His father, her grandfather “Poppa,” had died. Her friends at school came up to her. They were sorry to hear about his death. Poppa used to carry around big packets of Juicy Fruit gum in his pockets. He’d hand out sticks of gum to all the kids at the end of High Holiday services. Those friends helped her remember her grandfather in a loving, wonderful way.
In Leviticus, which we read each week at synagogue at this time of year, there are long lists of “shoulds” and “should nots” and instructions for how we should do things. Some of these rules seem rigid. Many aren’t really applicable in a world without ritual sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, we have both rabbinic teachings and the Tanakh sacrifice experience. We’re offered tools for how to mourn and how to manage through hard times. That history can propel us forward.
My family and community “practised” with kids so they were ready. True, it may be bending someone’s rules to recite Kaddish in the backyard over a beloved pet who has died. It may not be exactly correct to light a yahrzeit candle and recite Kaddish over a beloved (non-Jewish) elementary school principal who has died, but this “practising” doesn’t matter to most. The Jewish rituals and traditions that exist around death aren’t really about the person who died. It’s about how the rest of us will move forward.
Death is a part of life. It’s dang hard. However, hard things don’t go away because we decide not to talk about them or face them. Instead, brave people conquer difficult challenges through facing them head on. My nephew L is one of those brave people. He uses a wheelchair, signs and uses an iPad communication device to talk – and shows such compassion. He told my mother, “Now I know how you felt when your mom died.”
This week, my nephew heard that we are about to adopt a new dog. He hadn’t realized that one of our dogs died last fall, right before Yom Kippur. He was reassured that our dog Harry was old, and very sick … and that is how most of us die. However, it’s through talking about this that we can move on towards celebrating a new “family member,” too.
Talking about death isn’t easy, but we need to do it – in calm, peaceful ways – long before something sudden happens to us or our families. Talking about death in a Jewish context and acknowledging the value of the rituals that help us cope with it may be one of the deepest ways we can celebrate life.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.