Explaining Death to Kids

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David Techner

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Involving Children In The Grief Process


By David Techner

I was recently asked to explain my passion for involving kids when their family suffers a loss. This blog will not only explain the roots of my interest in this subject, but also will be the beginning of a series intended to assist parents in helping their children navigate through what is often a painful and confusing time.

I was nine years old when my grandfather Samuel Techner died. Samuel was lovingly known to his family as "Pa Sam" and was a larger-than-life figure to me growing up. As his health began to deteriorate because of leukemia, it was obvious that his days might be numbered. Initially, my brothers and I could visit him at Sinai Hospital. Then we were able to speak briefly on the phone with him. Eventually, it became a situation where my parents would report back to us that Pa Sam was very weak, but the doctors felt they could make him better.

I came home from school one day and saw many of my aunts' and uncles' cars outside. Sadly, I concluded that Pa Sam's battle with leukemia had come to an end. I walked into the house and learned that I was correct - Pa Sam had, indeed, died.

Incredibly and inexplicably, my parents had chosen not to tell my two older brothers or me that Pa Sam had died, and the funeral and burial had already taken place. My parents had concluded that a full seven-day shiva period with morning and evening services at our home was all that was required for my brothers and me to get through this time.

My brothers and I, along with our similar-age cousins, had far more questions than we had answers. And yet, there seemed to be no one to help us understand what happened, why he died and even where he was buried. Nobody. Death was just not talked about in 1960. Pa Sam's dying left a void, not only in my life, but also in those of so many grandchildren, nieces and nephews who had loved and admired him.

When the opportunity arose for me to become the third generation of this proud family business, I couldn't help but think of the only significant loss I had experienced to date. Ironically, my family had been served by the business I was about to join. I knew that the way Pa Sam's grandchildren had been treated many years before was not a standard I felt comfortable with. I applaud Ira and Herb Kaufman for their support and in taking a bold step in unfamiliar territory for the funeral profession. They put their faith in a 23-year old with a great deal of passion, but little experience in the industry and, from then on, children's feelings became an important consideration in the way deaths are handled here.

A dear friend of mine, Rabbi Harold Loss once said, "If out of something negative comes nothing positive, consider it a wasted opportunity." I think of Pa Sam each time I am privileged to sit with a grieving family and their children, and hope to help them understand the process and the traditions that have guided us for generations.