Knesset Menorah (credit Yishay Shavit for photo)
Knesset Menorah (credit Yishay Shavit for photo)

Last night I had one of those life defining experiences that no parent looks forward to: talking to my 4 year old about death. A tragedy has struck our community. A young father lost his battle with cancer. He has a child in my daughter’s preschool class. It’s a Jewish preschool and all of the parents in the class were told that the following day the death of this dear parent would be discussed in class.

My wife and I decided to raise the subject as we were preparing dinner, wanting to give our daughter ample time to reflect. As we flipped quesadillas we brought her close and told her that her friends daddy had died. She immediately became quiet and sad and then asked, “Does that mean he only has a mommy now?” Then she fell into my wife’s arms. There were tears all around, lots of hugs and kisses, and then many many thoughts and questions from her.

“Will my friend go to heaven to see his daddy?”

“How do you get to heaven?”

“I think my friend didn’t want his daddy to die.”

“Am I going to die? Are you going to die?”

“Are his daddy’s eyes closed? Who closed them? Where is he?”

“Is he sleeping under the big rock?”

And many more. I don’t even know where or how my daughter became so focused on the idea of heaven.

My wife and I tried to convey the following to our daughter:

“Your friend’s daddy had cancer. He was very sick. Sometimes there is medicine to help, sometimes the medicine doesn’t work.”

“He did not want to die and he will miss his family very much. But love is everlasting. He will always love your friend and your friend will always love his daddy.”

“Dying is not at all like sleeping. We close our eyes all the time, but when we die it is different than when we close our eyes at night.”

“It’s okay to be sad.”

“We don’t know where or what heaven is. We don’t know how anyone gets there. It is all a great mystery.”

Along with as much reassurance as possible that we are healthy, that we love her, and more.

My wife reported that there were many more questions on the way to school today.

It’s a hard conversation to have, especially when it strikes so close to home. But clearly our daughter understood the significance and needed to be able to talk about it with her parents, even if both of us are rabbis…

talking to my 4 year old daughter about death