Telling Our Kids/Grandkids Bad News…

Logo seen at memorial service at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA (PA Gov. Tom Wolf official photos via
Logo seen at memorial service at Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA (PA Gov. Tom Wolf official photos via

Like most of us on Saturday, October 27, we welcomed our lazy-day Shabbat to horrendous news of slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Eleven dead. Six injured, including police officers who were just doing their job.

Jews gathered together to celebrate our freedom of religion. Congregants  just wanted to come together, pray and contemplate our faith, history and culture. A family celebrates the Bris of their child.

On that day, in that moment, Jews around the world became one large congregation, “When ONE Jew hurts, ALL Jews hurt.” We cry, we mourn, we strive to heal, we struggle to reconcile such a heinous act of violence. As adults, most have experienced many devastating events, personal and otherwise, so many of us have a private process for overcoming bad news.

But HOW do we communicate such an unimaginable, dreadful and  horrifying event to our grandchildren, young nieces and nephews, kids in our Sunday School classes, places where we volunteer our time with children, while having to explain that which rips our hearts out, to the very people we want to protect and keep out of harm’s way?  For most of these kids, it will be like our Dallas moment when President Kennedy was shot. A hard, cold taste of the real world that goes beyond texting, school, sports and having fun.

There is not a “one size fits all” easy answer on how to communicate tragedy.

Later Saturday afternoon I was driving my 15-year-old granddaughter to our Temple for a youth event. I questioned if I should have CNN on the radio, but not one to “keep news from the children”—like they did in many of our childhoods by speaking in Yiddish and would exclaim, “Sha! The kinder!” (After my parents were killed in a car accident in 1962, no one told my six-year-old brother for days that mommy and daddy were dead, because, 40 years later, many relatives shared, “We didn’t know how to explain such a tragedy.”  From my place: You just explain the facts! Life is tough and sheltering life’s terribleness does not prove to serve one’s growth, allow one to understand or how to move forward when your life is turned upside down, nor teach you to deal with life’s horrible events.)

I decided to let Ari hear the most current accounts of the event. The president of the United States was commenting that “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him.”

I boiled with his comment (blaming the victims, as he so often does) while my granddaughter asked, “Why would we need security people?” I answered, “We live in difficult times and we need extra protection for hate crimes. It helps people to feel safer.” I only hoped she understood.

Later that evening I asked my 18 year old grandson and other 15 year old granddaughter what they thought of the killings. Their responses mirrored Ari’s comment implying “Why should we feel unsafe at Temple?” Obviously, they had never given a thought that Temple was anything other than fun and comforting, filled with learning, celebration and kinship.

Will this happening give them cause to pause and feel uneasy? I hope not as we don’t want to scare them but we want them to be vigilante, so giving them facts and reality, I believe, is imperative.

These three teens all felt pain when our Camp Newman burned down last year but that was an act of Mother Nature that they could comprehend but  how do they process this tragedy?

How do we explain this disaster to our children and grandchildren? Being gentle, mindful and compassionate goes a long way in sharing bad news whether the recipient is young or old.

Recommendations that parents and grandparents can follow after a frightening incident:

-Be developmentally appropriate

-Break the news gently

-Take cues from the child as to when enough information has been said

-Model calm but don’t be afraid to be vulnerable

-Let them know you feel sadness and you also don’t understand the whys

-Be reassuring as to their safety and love

-Let them ask questions and speak. Help them express their feelings and cry if that’s what they want to do

-Don’t let them leave the conversation confused with unanswered questions

-Leave the door open for more questions they might have, don’t seal off the conversation

-Young children need brief simple information that should be balanced with reassurance

-Upper elementary and early middle school children can handle the information with basic/truthful facts. Let them ask questions and validate their input. No question is studid.

-Upper middle and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about violence and the causes. Allow them to speak, be heard and validated for their opinions. Don’t insult them with “You are too young” to fully understand or that their thoughts and opinions don’t matter. Reassure them that you respect their perspective as another way of viewing the issue

It may take awhile for any age kid to bring up the conversation with more questions and opinions. Let them know you respect their active mind for continued thinking of events in the world. Encourage them to use their social media devices responsibly as we once used newspapers for the gathering of information.

And don’t ever put-down how the world is spinning today, it is their world, their reality! They may never understand a newspaper, the Dewey Decimal System, the value of a library or a phone booth! Just enjoy the memories that are ours!

Late Saturday afternoon: How reassuring to hear the Pittsburgh community gather in the streets of their city and sing Hine Ma Tov—Psalm 133:1. “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Please, G-d: Bless the Tree of Life community. Keep them safe. Keep us all safe.

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