Explaining Death to Kids

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David Techner

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Why G-d Created Dogs


By David Techner

Toward the end of his career at Temple Israel, Rabbi M. Robert Syme, of blessed memory, would often ask me to take him on Shiva calls, which I was more than happy to do. Once, a longtime member and dear friend of his died and the family asked him to officiate. The deceased had a grandson who was six and a half years old and was described to me as being very sensitive, wise beyond his years and very curious about death. Rabbi Syme suggested that the family contact me and arrange a meeting and tour of the Chapel to help the child make sense of his grandfather's death.

As I sat with this young boy, I wondered where this glowing assessment came from, as he appeared to barely listen, asked no questions and seemed disinterested in any discussion involving his grandfather's life, his death and Judaism's approach to life after death. Although he came to the funeral, I saw little of the gifted child described in my initial meeting with his parents.

Rabbi Syme and I visited the home where Shiva was being observed. As Rabbi Syme sat down, the boy approached us with information that I hadn't known about. "My dog died," he announced.

As I began to comprehend the reason behind the child's previous silence, Rabbi Syme asked, "What was your dog's name? What kind of dog was he?"

For the first time since meeting this young boy, I saw his eyes light up. He described his dog with an enthusiasm not previously shown in the discussions about his grandfather. When the boy finished telling Rabbi Syme about his dog, Rabbi Syme asked him, "Do you know why G-d created dogs?" The crowd gathered in the family room stopped all activities and conversation. You could have heard a pin drop.

The boy responded, as I believe everyone in that room might have, with, "No, why did G-d create dogs?" Rabbi Syme answered, "There are three reasons. First: dogs teach us how to give unconditional love. You can be mad, furious with your dog and he will still snuggle up with you through your anger, regardless of the seriousness of what indiscretion he might have performed. Second: dogs teach us humans how to receive unconditional love. I have noticed that when families go through illness and bereavement, the family dog is there through thick and thin, giving and receiving love at a time when we need it most. And finally, and most importantly, dogs teach us how to lose."

The boy looked puzzled and said, "I don't understand."

Rabbi Syme continued, "You see, the average person in the United States lives about 78 years. The average dogs lives 11 years. What dogs teach us is we can bring them into our family and love them unconditionally from puppy to old age. And when we lose them, as difficult as it is, we can reflect on the gift of love given and received, shed our tears, cherish our time we were blessed to share, and realize that life, as difficult as it may seem, must go on. This is why G-d created dogs."

The silence in the room spoke volumes. As we left the home, you could sense that everyone who shared this experience felt enriched by this exchange between a young child and his Rabbi. As we buckled our seat belts, I looked at Rabbi Syme and demanded, "Where did that come from? That was brilliant!"

Rabbi Syme explained that, when rabbis are posed a question for which they have no answer, they respond by writing a sermon. Once he was asked by a young child, "Why did my dog die? Didn't G-d love my dog?" Rabbi Syme didn't remember his exact response, only that he felt it was not something he was comfortable with. So, he wrote and delivered a sermon later entitled, "Why G-d created dogs," a sermon he continued to deliver and one that has probably been repeated by everyone who was in that family room that day.