Children and Shiva

Do children related to the deceased sit shiva?
Although children below bar/bat mitzvah age are not obligated to sit shiva, some children may choose to participate. The decision to follow the traditions of Jewish mourning, and/or keep some of the mourning restrictions, will vary with the age, maturity level and understanding of each child. Giving a child choices about his or her level of involvement is often helpful and may offer the child a sense of control during a difficult and confusing time.

Is it appropriate to bring a child to a shiva house?
While some people believe that children help add comfort, others feel it is inappropriate to bring a child to a shiva house. In fact, there is no clear answer to the question of whether or not a child should be brought to a shiva call. There are several things to consider, however, such as the nature of the relationship with the family sitting shiva, the expressed wishes of the family, the type of loss suffered (e.g., sudden or following a long illness), the behavior of the child and the child's understanding of shiva. Parents should use their best judgment and may wish to consult with others to arrive at a decision.

For a child, a visit to someone who is sitting shiva may demystify the impact of death and mourning and help the child cope with the loss. By offering condolences in person, a child learns the value of comforting the bereaved and shares the pain, loss and memories of the deceased with others. It is important for parents to educate, inform and support the child before visiting the shiva house to avoid confusion and fear. Equally, parents should speak to the child about expectations and proper behavior for the visit.

How do you explain death to a child?
Jewish law does not provide specific guidance for talking with children about death. Every child is different, and parents know their child best. It is important to weigh all information carefully to determine what makes sense for the child and the family.

The following thoughts, compiled from numerous print and online sources, including an essay in Jewish Family and Life, may be helpful.

Keep it simple and clear. Explain to the child that a person has died and his or her body is not working anymore; the person can no longer eat or breathe or talk. Euphemisms, such as "passed away" or "went to a better place", may be unclear and add to the child's confusion. Explain what the cemetery is - a place where dead people are buried - not where ghosts live or where people sleep. Relating death to sleep may frighten a child who is expected to go to sleep every night. 

Use examples and be prepared to repeat yourself. Examples can often help a child understand a difficult concept such as death. A person's whose illness could not be cured, for example, may be like a broken toy that could not be repaired, even with a new set of batteries. The child may be able to relate to the loss of a pet or dead flowers that no longer bloom.

Explain that part of the person lives on. Depending on a family's beliefs, a child may be comforted to know that a person's soul remains. While the body stays in the ground, the soul of the deceased lives on, just like a memory. 

Be supportive and reassuring. Children may fear losing a parent or another loved one next. Avoid driving home the point that everyone dies some day. Remind and encourage the child that you are always available to talk, answer questions and offer support. Remember, no question is inappropriate, and it is okay to not have all the answers.

Do not pass on feelings of anger. In some cases, there is anger surrounding the death of a loved one. Passing that anger on to a child is not productive and can lead to more confusion. Adults should deal with feelings of anger or hostility privately, away from children.   

What should a child know before visiting a shiva house?
A child should know what to expect at the shiva house and the basic traditions of Jewish mourning. He or she should know that shiva is the first period of structured mourning and lasts for seven days. Explain that shiva is a solemn time, and there will be various types of observances in the house, such as a pitcher of water outside the front door, removing shoes before entering the home, sitting on low chairs, covered mirrors and a burning candle. Visit Mourner Observances to learn more.     

Good behavior and proper etiquette are essential. Explain to the child that he or she should speak in a low voice and greet mourners only after first being addressed. Stress that shiva is a time to remember and honor the deceased and provide comfort to the family. Sadness is a natural part of the grieving process; so explain to the child that some of the mourners may cry or not speak at all.

What should a child wear to a shiva house?
It is not important for a child to dress formally to make a shiva call, but it is important to dress respectfully and simply. 

 

Suggested Books:
The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life For All Ages by Leo Buscaglia 
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Bianco 
Barclay and Eve: Sitting Shiva by Karen Carney 
Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Stickney 
The Saddest Time by Norman Simon 
Sad Isn't Bad by Michaelene Mundy