Responding to a Death in the Yeshivah High School Family: A Handbook/Checklist for Yeshivah Educators

  • by: Joel W. Wolowelsky

Dr. Wolowelsky is Dean of the Faculty at the Yeshivah of Flatbush
The first edition of this Handbook was published in 1987 by TEN, the Torah Education Network, a joint project of the Educators Council of America, the Torah Education Department of the World Zionist Organization, and the Max Stern Division of Communal Services of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University. An edition for community junior and senior Jewish high schools was published in 2001 by the Pardes Educators Program.
The death of a parent is a crisis of momentous proportions for teenagers. Caught in the natural but often tumultuous struggle for independence, they suddenly find themselves cut off from one of their main protectors/ restrainers. It’s a time of fear and confusion that calls for an immediate and effective support system.
Of course, there should be many support systems in place for the student: family, relatives, friends and the congregational rabbi. More often than not, these people provide all the necessary support. Nonetheless, it is the yeshivah which must assume responsibility for protecting and supporting its students. Indeed, its response might leave an impact more lasting than any other Jewish educational attempt. If no one in the community thinks of calling the school to report the death, it is probably a reflection of the school not being perceived as an important resource/ support system for its students.
There is simply no way of being sure that the proper support system is in place without someone physically going to the student’s home as soon as possible. It is the responsibility of the rosh hayeshivah or principal to make sure that some faculty member goes to the home. It might take only ten minutes to check out that the family is “all together,” that relatives and friends have gathered to lend support and organize the funeral, and that the congregational rabbi is actively involved. However, often it is the Jewish educator who must step in and offer support and direction. Here are some things to check out:
Generally, if the family belongs to a congregation, the rabbi will coordinate all funeral arrangements. Indeed, educators must make sure that they are communicating and coordinating everything with the family’s rabbi. There are, however, situations in which the family is new to the community, is involved only marginally with a congregation, if at all, or does not have a relationship with a community rabbi. It is necessary to be aware of the possibility that the family or the student will be looking to the school for support. Moreover, sometimes the congregational rabbi is actively involved with the adults in the family and, because of pressures of time, will be unable to focus on the children. It then becomes the responsibility of Jewish educators to provide that support for their students.
The family might be either grateful if you provide halakhic guidance and suggestions or resentful for your uninvited intrusion into its personal affair. Especially if it is an older child who must shoulder the responsibility, they might need someone to help them contact the hevra kaddisha, make the funeral arrangements, arrange for a tahra, select a casket, or help them deal with legal authorities in releasing the body. The only way to be sure that everything is being tended to is to ask. Dealing with these issues requires sensitivity and tact; in many ways it is a test of one’s skills as an educator. In any event, the primary purpose in going to the home is to provide support for the students and to help them deal with the death.
Speak to the students quietly for a few moments. Give them an opportunity to describe what has happened over the last few hours and to talk about the deceased. Ask them how everyone else is reacting and then how they are doing. Get a sense of the family dynamics and find out if they have spoken to the congregational rabbi or anyone else from school. It is necessary to explain what is expected of them at the funeral and shiva, and here the educator must be aware of the customs followed in the family’s religious community. You should be sensitive to the fact that the student may belong to a community which follows customs that differ from those of the majority of your students. For example, in some Sephardic communities, the mourners say kaddish at the funeral and do not attend the burial of a father; keriya is performed when the mourners return home, not at the funeral. Many Orthodox congregations allow women to say kaddish, although some do not.
As adults who have gone to many funerals, we sometimes take for granted that everyone knows the whole procedure. But the student mourners may be worried about what they must do. All you have to do is ask, “Would you like me to explain to you what goes on at the funeral and burial?” Take your cue from the response. Don’t force information on them, but don’t leave them wondering about something about which they are fearful. Mention quickly that at the funeral they need not do anything on their own, as the rabbi or a teacher will give them direction. Tell the mourners how keriya is done. Reassure the mourners that you or the congregational rabbi will be there all the time to tell them what to do. Mention that someone will say kaddish at the burial along with the mourners if they want; there is no need to practice beforehand.
There is a growing custom in many communities for family members to speak at the funeral. Check with the adult family members and the rabbi if you should raise this with the student mourners. If the students will speak, offer to help them prepare. Show up at the funeral home when the family arrives.
Make sure the students have someone with whom to talk after you leave. There may be many people around, but they may be busy with the surviving spouse. Ask them, “Which friend should I call to stay with you this evening?” This gives them room to decline or accept without feeling that an unfair demand is being made on their friends.
Leave your phone number. No one should feel guilty about calling you at home in a crisis!-that’s what Jewish education is all about. Be sure to mention that they can call you late in the night or early in the morning if they have any questions about the funeral. Leave a copy of a book that describes coping with death from a religious, philosophical or halakhic perspective, such as R. Maurice Lamm’s The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, R. Aaron Felder’s Yesodei Smochos, or (for a more learned family) R. Yechiel Tukachinsky’s Gesher HaHayyim or R. Hayyim Goldberg’s Penei Barukh. (Remember to inscribe it: “For the ABC family, HaMokom Yinahem Ethem…, From the administrators and faculty of the XYZ Yeshivah.” This concrete reminder of your concern provides psychological support and practical direction throughout the shiva.) Of course, in order to have a book to bring, the school must have a supply of different types of books on hand!
Be sure that arrangements have been made for the mourner’s classmates to attend the funeral. Junior and senior high school students are, when properly prepared, certainly old enough to attend a funeral. Their presence is very comforting for the mourners. The classmates have to be notified, buses ordered at school expense, permission forms obtained, sometimes tests or school programs canceled, etc. -?all on very short notice. But there is simply no overestimating the support given by classmates showing up at the funeral (even if they come on short notice and were not “properly dressed”). It’s the Jewish educator’s obligation to help organize this hessed / hinukh activity. (It might also be necessary to encourage one or two close friends of the mourner to go along to the burial.)
If you will return home with the mourners, you can save a discussion of shiva until that time. Otherwise, mention some of the basic etiquette: They should not stand when someone comes in and need not introduce one person to another; if the mourner feels tired, he or she can simply lie down in another room -even if friends are present. When you pay a shiva call, pay attention to the dynamics; you might pick up something to discuss with the student. Reassure the mourners that there is no need to worry about schoolwork missed. Weak students will need repeated reassurance -and special help when they return after shiva. When speaking to the students during the week of shiva, it can sometimes be helpful for the educator to find a way to let the student know that there are many different ways to mourn and grieve; everyone must find the way that is most comfortable for themselves -and what is comfortable may change or fluctuate over time. Even within the immediate family, individuals may cope in diametrically opposed ways, and this can lead to feelings of guilt, worry, or confusion. (For example, a student may feel unemotional about the loss and feel guilty for not mourning more, especially in comparison to another family member who appears devastated or inconsolable.)
If time allows, it would be best to speak with mourner’s class/ sheur before the funeral. Everyone is upset, there is an unmentioned fear of the same thing happening to their own parents, and in addition there is the discomfort of not knowing what is expected of them at the funeral. While it is important to convey information as well as religious and psychological support for the class, the most important objective is to give the students the opportunity to process their feelings and thus work them through. The educator must avoid doing most of the talking in such a meeting; to lead the conversation too forcefully is to do a disservice to the students.
Some educators may seek to avoid such a class meeting, maintaining it really is not necessary. It is possible that this reluctance stems from their own unwillingness to lead such an emotion-laden discussion. Indeed, in such a case it would be better for that faculty member to sit in as a more experienced teacher or guidance counselor meets with the class. Yet in the end, this is an educational activity that really must be mastered by the true Jewish educator.
We present here an outline for a discussion with a high school class. This is hardly the only direction such a discussion might take, but educators who have not yet conducted such a “session” can use it as a backdrop against which to plan their own talk. There is no “right” way of talking with the class; but there are certainly unproductive avenues that are worth avoiding.
o Almost everyone would have heard of the death before school begins. Ask: “How many of you have ever been to a funeral or a burial?” Most probably only two or three would have been, and you should pay attention to the specific circumstances. Establish quickly under what circumstances they attended a funeral so that you can be aware of sensitive areas while talking to the class; you might want to watch the reaction of some individual students while the discussion continues.
o Say: “You may have some questions as to what goes on at a funeral, and I want to answer your questions. But I’d like to touch on a few other points first.” This establishes that you’re there to help and gives you a predetermined way of bringing the discussion to a close: you need only come back to the details of a funeral.
o Ask for a quick show of hands: “How many of you knew Mr/Mrs. XYZ (the deceased)?” “How many of you knew that he or she was ill (if death was a result of a sickness)?” “How many of your parents knew him or her?” This gives you, once again, information regarding the group with which you’re talking.
o Ask: “How did you hear about the death and what was your reaction?” There will be a moment or two of silence here, as no one wants to be first. Almost always, someone will volunteer a reaction, and the factual question (“How did you hear?”) makes it easier to speak out. No response should be given an immediate reaction; a nod of the head gives students the encouragement to express their feelings without fear, which is the primary objective of this session.
o Hopefully, after one or two responses someone will mention “crying.” If not, after a while simply say: “I’m surprised no one mentioned crying.” The object is not to get confessions about crying, but to reassure the students that crying is indeed an adult response.
o Ideally, one of the responses will be “frightened.” If not, it too can be brought to the floor by saying: “Usually, people react by being frightened. What do you think they might be frightened of?” Here, again, the purpose is to show the students that they need not feel that their thoughts are in any way “crazy” or unnatural. Once expressed, these thoughts become quite normalized and can be discussed. You might also explore the reactions of their parents. It’s valuable for students to know that adults often respond to crises with fear, emotion, etc. There is nothing grown-up about hiding feelings.
o Quickly go over the details of the funeral. Ask if anyone intends to go to the burial. Generally, one or two close friends and an administrator or teacher should go to the cemetery with the mourners.
Depending on the timing, you can discuss the shiva period at this time or after the funeral. Students have many questions as to what behavior is appropriate. It would be best to let the details flow from a discussion of the open-ended question of what to expect and how to behave during a shiva visit. But one way or the other, the students should be left with no doubt as to the nature of the visit: They are not there to take the mourners’ minds off their sorrow; it is quite all right to talk about the deceased-such discussion is indeed a hesed; it is quite acceptable to sit quietly and not talk to anyone. Discuss how to behave on entering (simply sitting down without greeting the mourner) and then leaving (knowing the words of the formal consolation). Be aware of different community customs.
All teachers who have taught the student Torah or secular studies should be encouraged to pay a shiva call. It is necessary to schedule for one or two classmates to be at the shiva on a rotation basis throughout the day. Students will have to be released from classes, tests will have to be rescheduled, etc. But there is no excuse for leaving a student alone all day, and-especially if the student was not particularly popular-this requires coordination from the school office. The yeshivah might also have to assume responsibility for daily minyanim at the shiva house; this too will require rescheduling classes, tests, etc. Even if the school is not responsible for arranging the minyanim, it should assure that some students and faculty members attend each service.
As ma-aminim benei ma-aminim, we know the importance of hashkafa and hizzuk at such moments of crisis. But, unfortunately, this can be misused, and it’s important to avoid certain pitfalls. If, for example, the “Torah answer” is announced at the outset, students get the message not to express their questions and as a result never get to work them out in a Torah framework. This type of hizzuk often stifles expressing one’s feelings. Torah has nothing to fear from troubling questions; but educators must fear a situation in which students think it wrong to express their feelings to their teachers and rabbis. Hence the importance of first initiating a discussion wherein thoughts and emotions are expressed openly.
Sometimes tragic circumstances -such as the death of a student or a catastrophic accident– impact on the faculty as a whole. It is then necessary to bring the faculty together to help them deal with their own feelings and to get guidance on how to proceed. At such times, it is also important to maintain direct contact with the parent body, telling them what you are doing to help their children and making the counseling services of the school available to them and their families.
It is important to discuss with the student’s classmates their response to their friend’s return to school. They should have the opportunity to voice their discomfort and ask for guidance. Explain that their friend will need some support, but that for the most part he or she must begin to reestablish a normal and regular lifestyle. A few off-the-cuff questions to classmates as to “How is XYZ doing?” will help you be aware of potential problems that must be addressed. Each teacher must be consulted as to help the student make up lost work. If the school has a guidance office, this should fall under its responsibility, otherwise an administrator must take the initiative. An official and public “welcome back” quickly done at minyan or during the official period helps everyone acknowledge their own uncomfortable feelings.
Arrange for some formal group expression of condolence, such as properly inscribed seforim for the beit medrash or library. A tsedakah project or a special learning project (mishnayot are especially appropriate) might be considered as a means of further involving students and identifying with the mourner. Discuss with the family the possibility of marking the sheloshim in some way. It is important to balance the needs of the bereaved students with those of the school community as a whole.
If the parent died during the summer or a school vacation period, it is especially important to mark the death in a school community setting when sessions resume.
The student mourners should be called in for a quick talk after a week. Be aware that some of their close friends may need special private counseling. In some cases they are actually semi-mourners who are denied the formal support system available to the mourners. Be aware that there tends to be an ebb and flow in the bereavement process rather than a linear “getting better.” One should not expect students to be “recovered” after a certain number of months. Clearly, there have to be certain academic expectations, but being aware of later “grief pockets” is important. Mark your calendar so that you remember to check on the student’s progress after three and then six months. This would also be a good time to call the family to see how things are progressing from their perspective.
It’s difficult to give as clear an outline of how to react to a death in the family of an elementary school student. Of course, it is necessary to go to the student’s home and to assume responsibility for supporting him or her. But while most healthy high school students have more or less the same level of emotional and psychological sophistication needed to deal with this issue, in the lower school even students on the same grade level can differ greatly in their ability to confront death. Indeed, seeing young children cry extensively over the death of a parent and then a few hours later hearing them ask when the deceased will return can make educators very uneasy if they do not realize that youngsters cannot really comprehend the finality of death. Here, then, are some general guidelines which must be adjusted to the sophistication level of each class.
It’s necessary to give an opportunity for non-verbal expression. For example, saying a chapter of Tehillim together can be all the more important for children who cannot verbalize their feelings than it would be for high school students who can more fully appreciate the thoughts being expressed. Having first graders draw pictures for their bereaved classmates, for example, allows them to feel that in some way they have dealt with a crisis. Discussion should follow such activities.
Answer questions simply and directly. Be aware that your words can be misunderstood and misapplied. (Saying, for example, that God loved the deceased and so took him or her to be with him in Gan Eden can leave a child wondering as to which good person-child or parent-will be next.) Raising questions for adolescents gives an opportunity to vent festering fears; but for young children it can create tensions. Work into the conversation a reassuring statement that “Of course, something like this hardly ever happens to children this young.” Listen to what the children are saying.
Be aware of the needs of the parents. Young parents can be especially upset at the death of a fellow parent and unsure of how to respond; they may need extra guidance from the school. If a child’s classmate has lost an immediate family member, parents should not assume that their child is unaware of the death. Pre-school and even early elementary aged children may return to school one or two days after the death, and they will most likely talk about what happened. The school should send a letter home to the parents of the student’s classmates advising them of the death. A short meeting for parents at lunchtime or in the evening to exchange ideas and confront fears is often in order. Parents will need help formulating how to speak to their child about the tragedy, and they should be on the lookout for physical symptoms (such as lack of sleep or behavior changes) that may emerge when the child is not sure about how to express his or her concerns verbally, or even if it is appropriate to do so. Children should ideally be provided with both home and school environments in which everything they say about this subject and anything they ask is OK. Adults should also realize that small children do have ideas and questions about death, and they will notice contradictions in information we provide for them. It is quite appropriate for an adult to buy time when faced with a difficult question by telling the child they have to think about the answer. The adult can then mull it over or consult with a professional before following up with the child. Usually, even young elementary students can handle a shiva visit, but the decision should be left to the individual parents to take their own children with them. Even at this young age, peers can provide incredible support.
The death of a grandparent is a crisis for an elementary school student, but it is usually dealt with on a personal rather than class level. We should note, though, that as this is a fairly regular experience for youngsters in elementary schools, serious thought should be given as to how the curriculum can be expanded to prepare students for such a loss without raising unnecessary fears. On the high school level, the death of a grandparent can impose additional household responsibilities on the student in addition to the emotional stress. Counselors should be sure to monitor the grandchildren on a timely basis.
An unfortunate consequence of the wider religion-psychology conflict is the mistaken perception that truly committed religious people never need counseling or that the only competent counselor is a rebbe or rav. This sometimes forces a rabbi or educator to take on counseling roles for which he or she was not fully trained or inhibits referrals to a competent counselor. A yeshivah, no less than any other school, should have both a staff of trained counselors who are themselves committed to the school’s philosophy, and an up-to-date list of experts who can provide guidance to the school and to whom outside referrals can be made.
To view the edition for community Junior and Senior Jewish High Schools, published in 2001, click here.