“I’m not going to lie to him,” my wife said, turning to me on an evening that now seems so long ago. “He should know what’s going on.”
She seemed to expect a different reaction from me but I wasn’t going to argue. It was better for my son to be told the truth. I didn’t want to cover it up and have him start wondering what we were hiding. He didn’t need every detail but he deserved enough information to understand.
“I agree with you,” I said. “He should know where we are going.” Our family’s destination that evening wasn’t exactly a secret. We were paying a shiva call to a relative whose brother had died.
This wouldn’t be my son’s first experience with death. Two of his mother’s relatives passed away within the last five years. He has multiple friends who have lost relatives. And that is to say nothing of the more public tragedies to which he has been a virtual witness.
We told both children where we were going and why. Our daughter knew it was important but, if she had any reaction to the circumstances, she didn’t let on. She saw a toy ice cream cart when we entered the home and she was set for the night.
Our son followed suit for the most part. He served ice cream with his younger sister and helped to entertain the toddler who was also at the house. But I noticed that he took on a more somber attitude as the evening wore on.
Perhaps he was just bored. After all, he was surrounded by adults and the only other children present were half his age. I wondered, though, if his request to play on my phone was as much a technique for dissociating from the uncomfortable sadness as it was a way to pass the time.
The line parents walk when deciding how much to reveal to their children is a tricky one. We want to protect our kids from the evils of the world, to preserve their innocence and keep them young. We don’t want them to grow up feeling like the world is full of danger or that they have to be hyper-vigilant against potential threats.
And yet, we know that the reverse isn’t a good alternative either. If our shields are too effective, our children grow up unaware of the reasonable precautions they should be taking as they come and go. Kids need to know not to talk to (most) strangers and how to be aware of their surroundings. They need to understand that everyone goes through difficult moments and that things are not always “fine.” They need to understand that people get sick and that, sometimes, people die.
Children look to their parents for security and protection, but also for guidance about how to act in times of crisis, in matters that are life and death. They trust us to show them the way forward and to keep them safe as we do so. Part of that trust involves being honest. One of the worst things we can do as parents is to hide too much information from our children. Secrets tend to come out sooner or later and, once a child’s trust in their parents has been broken, it is extremely difficult to repair. We need to talk to kids about life and death.
We stayed at the house for an hour and a half. The young girls played with the ice cream cart and took turns crowning each other with headbands. Our son supervised and played along as an ice cream vendor, eventually moving to the staircase to play Helix Jump on my phone. My wife and I spoke with my aunt and uncle, with my uncle’s family, with anyone nearby. I led the evening prayer service and assured the family that I was happy to help. Our children asked questions, both while we were there and in the car on the way home, and my wife and I answered them as honestly as we could.
Our kids didn’t just help put people at ease with their presence; they learned about life – and death – by being present.
About the author
Aaron Yavelberg is a father, husband, son, brother, cousin, friend, writer, social worker and part-time teacher. He lives in Queens, New York, with his wife, son and daughter. Follow him on his blog, Sleeping on the Edge, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.