When somebody dies, parents and family members often don’t know how to talk about it with a younger child. They may be nervous that they’re going to frighten the child, or worse, end up causing them trauma.
Mirel C. Gruber believes that although it’s hard, discussing death with children is a necessary part of life. To help parents and family members with addressing death, she wrote “Where Has Zaidy Gone?” a book about a four-year-old girl named Goldy who learns about her grandfather’s death.
Gruber, who is a licensed master social worker and does early intervention for kids, said she was inspired to write the book after seeing a lack of material on the subject of death. “I was in a Judaica store and I realized there weren’t any books for young children experiencing loss. I figured I should fix that problem.”
A mother of a one-year-old and aunt to 30 nephews and nieces, Gruber depicted a typical shiva setting in “Where Has Zaidy Gone?” Goldy notices that everything in her house, including her routine, has changed. Aunts and uncles are sleeping over and sitting on low chairs, and the mirrors are covered. She needs to speak with someone and ends up knocking on her bubbe’s door.
Bubbe tells Goldy that that Zaidy is now in a happy place because his job on earth is done. She says that people are coming over to tell wonderful stories about Zaidy and sit shiva, where they mourn for seven days. Goldy, who doesn’t want her Bubbe to be alone in her room, encourages Bubbe to go downstairs and hear all the stories about Zaidy.
Before starting the book, Gruber never had to explain death to a young child. Then, one month after she finished her manuscript, when she was nine months pregnant, her mother suddenly passed away. “My four-year-old nephew, who I had written the book for, had the exact same questions that Goldy did,” she said. “It was a scary moment. But the book was a good way to explain to my nephew exactly what was happening.”
“Where Has Zaidy Gone?” is dedicated to the memory of Gruber’s mother, and she named her child after her mother, Faiga. “My mother was very supportive,” said Gruber. “She said my book was necessary, and that I had to write it.”
Gruber said it’s crucial that family members bring up death with a young child and be upfront about it because the child is often confused during this time. “When there is tragedy, children are shuffled from one family member to another. They don't know what’s happening to their lives or to their parents. They are scared and their normal routine is interrupted. Instead of avoiding the issue or rushing through an explanation, they can say it’s ok to be sad. Things will return to normal. It will just be a new normal. Children need reassurance, especially in a time of flux when their family is not the family they know.”
It’s dangerous to avoid the topic of death, because it can only make things worse for children. “Once something in their life they have come to depend on changes and no one is the to explain the ‘why’ of it, the child’s fear and anxiety may grow,” said Gruber. “Yes, children can't grasp serious adult concept, so use words and phrases that they can relate to and understand. Children need to know what is happening in and to their world.”
Additionally, Gruber noted that kids need to know that what they are feeling is okay. She suggested that parents talk about the topic prior to a sick family member dying, so the kids are prepared to experience the grief.
“Even though we don't want to discuss such a topic with a child, you can bring it up in calm manner that they understand,” she said. “If you know that a family member is going to pass away, you can tell your child that this is what is going to happen. We should not forget about the children.”