Children get a life lesson about dealing with death

April 24, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

Death can be a fearful stranger for children at the beginning of their lives.

But 15 Baltimore-area Jewish children know it much better now after a discussion of the Jewish traditions surrounding the end of life, and a tour of a local Jewish funeral home.

"I've never been to a funeral," said Mindy Epstein, 11, as she explored a room full of caskets on display in the basement of Sol Levinson & Bros. on Reisterstown Road.

When her great aunt Dorothy Epstein and her uncle Mortel Epstein died, she said, she was not allowed to go to the funerals. "It's nice to know how well they [the dead] are treated, and in a nice manner," she said.

The children's visit was arranged by Rabbi Elan Adler as part of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah class at Beth Tfiloh Community School in Pikesville.

"We took a risk in terms of bringing people here to an environment not associated with anything too pleasant," he said. "We are trying to educate them to what some of their adult responsibilities will be."

Once they're 13, he said, young Jewish men and women are obligated to attend funerals, to offer support and consolation at the shiva house, where the family is in mourning, and they need to understand the traditions and know what to expect.

"Having them here brings them over a psychological threshold," Rabbi Adler said.

Yesterday's gathering also was designed to let the children and their parents talk about and understand the emotions that surround death.

Deborah G. Mitnick, a Towson psychotherapist and grief counselor, led the discussion, trying to draw difficult emotions from the sometimes reluctant, sometimes giggly middle-schoolers.

When 13-year-old Justin Baer's grandmother died, his mother tried to hide her sadness by appearing strong for her children. "But when she was alone, she wasn't hiding it," Justin said.

Appearing "strong" is one way people cope with grief, Ms. Mitnick told him. Others cry, or even laugh. "Any reaction you have is a normal reaction during a time of great stress."

Often in these situations, she said, parents find it easier than their kids to talk about their reactions to grief, sometimes bringing out unresolved issues from their own childhood.

Recalling the death of her grandmother when she was a girl, Ruth Shpritz of Owings Mills remembered how she resented adults talking about her feelings without actually asking her about them.

"Children have a lot of feelings and should be encouraged to express them," she said.

The children seemed most interested in Rabbi Adler's discussion of the Jewish funeral traditions.

"How do they prepare the body?" asked Andrew Azman, an eager and energetic 13-year-old from Pikesville. He also wanted to know whether it would break Jewish law if he were buried in shorts and a T-shirt.

Rabbi Adler described the cleansing of the body by the chevra kaddisha, or "holy society," and the tachrichim -- the white shrouds used to clothe the deceased for burial.

He explained why Jewish services omit flowers, fine clothes on the deceased and open caskets common at non-Jewish funerals. "Judaism says to best cope with death, you've got to confront it head-on, as unadorned as possible," he said.

After the burial, he explained, the family returns to the shiva house, where they sit in low chairs symbolizing their sadness. Mirrors are covered so that family members need not worry about how they look. A ribbon or article of clothing worn by family members is torn to symbolize the separation of death. But it is not torn away, suggesting the bond will be mended in the next world -- olam habah.

Andrew's father, Irwin Azman, said his son did not want to attend the program. But dealing with death "is one of the obligations of a good Jewish person, and I wanted to give him a sense of obligation."

Mark Epstein, Mindy's father, said he wasn't sure why he was there at first. But after listening to the discussions and touring the funeral home with Rabbi Adler, he understood.

"We face death and these funerals to comfort people," he said. "Now it's not going to be a surprise when, God forbid, we have to face an unfortunate situation. It makes it less scary. I think everybody should have an acquaintance with this."

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