Discussing death with children in the age of COVID-19
COVID-19Critical conversations

Discussing death with children in the age of COVID-19

“It's about knocking on the door and waiting for them to open it.”

Illustration by Rose Lauer
Illustration by Rose Lauer

COVID-19 has put the topic of death and dying “in our collective consciousness in a way that we’ve never seen in our lifetimes,” said Rabbi Melanie Levav, director of PJ Library New York.

“In the wake of this pandemic it’s become an issue that’s crossed many more people’s minds and in new ways.”

As of press time, almost 90,000 people had died in the United States due to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although it’s difficult to ascertain the precise number of Jewish fatalities in the United States and around the world, “the death toll is in the thousands and climbing,” reported the Times of Israel.

“This is an opportunity for us as parents to think about how we grapple with death and dying, and how we might talk about it with our kids,” said Levav during a May 6 webinar.

The best way to address the topic, according to Cindy Snyder, clinical director of Pittsburgh’s 10.27 Healing Partnership, “is to let our children lead the conversation, or open up the conversation, but that means we need to be willing to go wherever they’re going to take us.”

Children are naturally curious, and often want to hear additional facts after an initial conversation, according to Lulu Orr, care navigator at Jewish Family and Community Services.

“I think sometimes we try to wrap things up with a bow and say, ‘OK, I’ve given my little talk and I’ve explained what happened and we’re good,’ but children, no matter their age, always want more information,” said Orr. “It doesn’t matter if it’s about death or if it’s about what’s available at the ice cream store. The number one thing is just being honest and truthful, and especially answering their questions and encouraging them to ask questions.”

Numerous factors, such as a child’s age or exposure to COVID-19 concerns, might influence the conversation.

“If there’s a personal connection, it kind of ups the ante in terms of your need to discuss it,” Snyder said.

Describing the current pandemic to a child is difficult, explained Deborah Rotenstein, a pediatric endocrinologist at Allegheny Health Network: “None of this makes sense.”

Rotenstein authored an e-book, titled “Because of the Coronavirus,” in an effort to broach the topic of the pandemic and its restrictions with her 3-year-old Israeli granddaughter after the child wondered why her Pittsburgh-based grandmother wouldn’t be visiting in the near future.

“I just think it’s hard for adults to talk to children, so this was my solution,” said Rotenstein.

The text details, in an age-appropriate manner, why much of the world appears upended, but avoids the subject of death.

“My initial foray into this was to try to explain what’s going on,” Rotenstein said. “I left death out because I was afraid that it would be much too frightening, and maybe that was cowardly.”

The topic is a difficult one to discuss with children, Snyder acknowledged.

“I think it’s okay to not know what to say and to be kind with yourself about that,” she said.

“There’s no perfect answer here. We’re all trying to figure it out as we go along because none of us have lived through anything like this.”

COVID spore. Illustration by Rose Lauer

Although COVID-19 is new to many families’ lexicons, discussing death requires tools that are not pandemic-specific, such as listening to questions and modeling behavior, explained Orr.

When someone dies and a child sees “that you’re crying openly, then they’re going to know it’s okay to cry. If they see that you’re talking a lot about that person, then they’re going to feel that they can talk about that person. If you make an environment that is very hushed, and don’t say anything in front of the kids, and they’re only hearing whispering, and that person’s name is not mentioned, then they’re going to feel like they can’t talk about that person” or discuss the situation, said Orr.

“By and large, if we listen, children are pretty good at letting us know what they’re wondering about, maybe not so much in the teenage years but certainly up until that point,” said Snyder.

“I’m always a big proponent of being honest and transparent with kids and telling them as much as you can that’s honest and accurate.”

The conversations may vary depending on the situation, but a parent can tell a child that everyone is “working really hard to make sure that as few people as possible get sick and that’s why we’re asking you to wear a mask,” or reminding a child that “some people will succumb to the disease but most people don’t,” said Snyder. “Putting their fears into some sort of perspective is important.”

Illustration by Rose Lauer

For teenagers, and older children in Pittsburgh, it can be helpful to remember the support the community received after October 27, 2018, explained Orr – the “huge outpouring of letters and drawings and paintings and posters that were sent from all over the world.” For children who were “touched by that,” there’s value in helping them “reach out in some way.”

Whether it’s sending a letter or drawing to a synagogue in New York City or to a school, if children “feel a need to reach out, as people reached out to us, do it. There’s no harm in that,” Orr said. “It’s actually embracing a kid’s wonderful innate sense of wanting to give back and pay it forward.”

The key for parents is “to take the lead from your child,” said Snyder. If a child doesn’t wish to discuss the current situation, “I think we need to respect that, and I think we need to say, ‘I’m going to check back in with you about this because I think it may be something that you’ll be ready to talk about it in a little bit of time.’” And when some time passes, it’s important to say, “I’m wondering what you’re thinking about? Or, ‘What are your friends talking about?’ Or, ‘Do you know any of your friends who have lost somebody during this time or to COVID?’”

Parents need to “keep the conversations going and to know that kids go in and out,” said Orr.

So while a child may cry after hearing a COVID-related story and then be “out in the yard, playing ball with neighbors, laughing, that’s completely normal. It does’t mean that those emotions weren’t really there. Kids are much more resilient than we as adults are. We tend to get all absorbed in our grief, and it’s very hard for us to go from crying for half an hour to having a dance party in the living room, but that’s very normal for children. And you need to continue whatever normalcy you can and just love them.”

Like so much of parenting, discussing death with children isn’t going to be a one-time neatly managed affair, explained Snyder: “It’s about knocking on the door and waiting for them to open it.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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