Having to explain and help our kids process and grasp the concept of death, whether in a moment where it affects them personally, or simply as a concept as a whole, can be a particularly challenging conversation for parents to navigate.

Joining me is Rabbi Steve Leder. Along with being the Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, he is the author of five books, including The Beauty of What Remains and his newest book, For You When I Am Gone.

Whether you’re seeking guidance on how to discuss life and death with your children or trying to come to terms with your own mortality, my hope is you walk away from this episode feeling a deeper understanding of how the very presence of death can make for more beauty in life.

Steve (00:00):

You prepare these kits for their first baseball game, you protect them. You put on the helmet and the pads and you talk to them, or you’re taking them to Dodger Stadium or Yankee Stadium for the first time. Oh, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get on the subway, we’re going to get out here, and you’re not going to believe the food that we’re going to have peanuts, we’re going to have hot dogs. You prepare kids for life. So what’s with not preparing them for death.

Dr. Sarah (00:34):

Having to explain and help our kids to process and grasp the concept of death, whether in a moment where it affects them personally or simply as a concept as a whole can be a particularly challenging conversation for parents to navigate. And I am so thrilled today to have Rabbi Steve Leder joining me on the podcast along with being the rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Rabbi Leder is the author of five books, including The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. In this book, he speaks so eloquently on death and the experience of helping it to guide how we make meaning of our life. So whether you are seeking guidance on how to discuss life and death with your children or trying to come to terms with your own mortality, my hope is that you walk away from this episode feeling a deeper understanding of how the very presence of death can make for more beauty in our life. This conversation was so rich and so in depth that I could not in good conscience cut it short. So this is going to be a two-parter, so make sure you listen all the way to the end and then come back next week for the part two continuation.


Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.


Hello. Welcome everyone. We have a really, really very special guest today, so I’m really grateful Rabbi Steve Leder who’s here. Thank you for being on the show.

Steve (02:40):

You are welcome. It’s really great to be with you, Sarah,

Dr. Sarah (02:44):

It’s really great. And before we hit record, we played a little Jewish geography and realize that we literally grew up at different times, but within a stone throw of one another in Minnesota. So that was really cool.

Steve (02:56):

Yeah, we’re family, there’s no doubt about it.

Dr. Sarah (02:59):

Yes, I know you have a number of books, but The Beauty of What Remains was the one I read before this interview and it was the impetus for me reaching out to see if you might come on this podcast to share. Because one of the questions I get asked a lot by parents is how do I talk to my kids about death from the place of how do I introduce it as a topic? How do I make it? Because I also, I’m a psychologist, I work with families in my sort of parent coaching world, I work with parents of all kinds of kids from totally typically developing to some mental health stuff to developmental issues, the whole range. But in my private practice, people, it’s pretty self-selecting, you go to a therapist because something isn’t working well, it’s not feeling right. There’s some sort of impetus to actually go and get that therapy. And a lot of times it’s anxiety. And I work with a lot of families who have kids who run anxious, who really fixate on are you going to die? How old do we live? When is grandma going to die? They understand enough, but it’s still so big and scary that they can perseverate on it. And I think kids who don’t have anxiety do this as well. I actually think developmentally, it’s really typical for kids to be curious about death. We as adults project a lot of our own learning about death onto that.

Steve (04:26):

Oh my gosh, lemme stop you there. That is so important. Death, children are curious about death. They are not terrified by death. They are not in some kind of existential turmoil because of death. If they are, they picked up that vibration from adults. When I officiated a funeral and there are young children there, and I know the next question is, well, how young is too young? My view is forget how young is too young. What is the right age? The right age? I believe to have a child at a funeral is the age at which that child is old enough to remember later in life that he or she was not allowed to attend the funeral. I have people in their seventies and eighties express regret and even anger toward their own parents, long dead because they didn’t allow them to go to their grandmother or grandfather’s funeral and they remember for decades that they weren’t allowed to go. And what is that memory really foundationally? It is the memory of being taught to fear and flee death and to fear and flee people you love who are suffering. It’s all the wrong messages and instincts.

Dr. Sarah (05:48):

And I actually think it’s that second piece actually that parents are more afraid of. I think parents are so afraid of their child, seeing them suffer, and that being profoundly scary to them. And I think that I agree with you so much that there are ways to embrace that.

Steve (06:04):

Oh, absolutely. And I always, always agree and suggest that I get a moment or two to talk to the kids first. Generally we’re talking about five years old and up four or five years old, two and three year olds are more of a distraction than anything else, and frankly will never remember they were there. So what’s the point right now? You want me to just ramble a little bit about all of these things?

Dr. Sarah (06:33):

Yeah, I absolutely do.

Steve (06:35):

Let’s start with this. Ideally, the death of a human being a child loves ought not to be the first death that child confronts and processes. So I wrote an article once called Don’t Flush the Fish, right? Because the instinct is, okay, we get the goldfish home from the carnival and the goldfish dies in about three days. It was probably diseased when you got it. And what do some parents do? They flush the fish and they run out and get a new one and put it in the bowl and act as if the death never happened. Talk about the denial of death right now. The other option is to scoop that fish out, put it in a little matchbox, go out into the yard, dig a little hole and have a fish funeral and go around that circle and allow everyone in the family to share a few words about the fish and then place some earth over into that hole and bury the fish and plant a flower or a tree or a vine. It doesn’t matter what that is. Preparing children for life by preparing them for death.


I remember the first fish funeral in our family. We had this Beta Fish, Siamese Fighting Fish is the other name for it. Fish dies and we decide. So I do the dad rabbi thing and we get the matchbox. We go out in the backyard, I dig a hole, we’re standing around and my little daughter, Hannah’s now almost 32, she was probably about four, we’re standing there quietly. She looks at me, she says, daddy, a few words. And I thought, alright, God. So I talked about how beautiful the fish was, and Hannah said he was such a good fish, he always ate all his food. And we went around as a family and we recognized the loss and we buried the fish and planted a flower. That’s a good first experience.

Dr. Sarah (08:56):

And I love the emphasis on celebrating the life of the fish because I think that’s a big message that you kind of express is that what we learn in death is a way to help us cope with life. How do we appreciate and live our life without really appreciating the fact that we will not be here forever? We got a little bit of time. Let’s make the most of it.

Steve (09:18):

Kafka was right. The meaning of life is that it ends. It’s really that simple. Imagine if we were deathless creatures. What meaning, what existence have none. We would never partner, we would never have children. We would never have much ambition. A deathless life would make us something other than human. And by the way, human beings are the only creatures that can spend their lives knowing they’re going to die. We have a consciousness and a realization of death that animals do not have. They may know they’re dying when death is imminent, but in midlife they’re not planning. They don’t see time as finite. They don’t see finitude as a part of existence. So it’s the beautiful part and the meaningful part about being human is that we are able to appreciate that our time is limited and therefore precious and that the people we love won’t physically be with us forever.


So these things, and I’m not trying at all to dismiss the pain of loss, but without finitude, life is literally without meaning. So this is all to the good that we expose our kids to this. So fish, funeral, first, fish, hamster, parakeet. I don’t care what it is, dog. It doesn’t matter. Don’t miss that opportunity. And I wanted to go back to tell you, whenever these little kids are at a funeral, I meet with them first. And at graveside I explained to them, let’s say it’s their grandmother, okay? Nana’s body is in that box called a casket, and we’re going to lower it into the ground so that her body can return to the earth where all things come from. And these kids, Sarah, they’re standing with their toes right up to the grave site and they’re very curious. They want to watch. I hold their hands so they don’t fall in. Obviously their parents are terrified. What’s the rabbi doing, Mike? Oh my God, they’re curious. They want to see the four cemetery workers lower the casket and move it into the right position. They want to know, and they’re curious. They’re not afraid. They will become afraid if we shoo them away. Get away, Joseph. Get away from there. Joey, come here. That’s the wrong move.


So now how do we talk about and answer questions that children have about death? We can get into that next. You let me know where you want to go.

Dr. Sarah (12:25):

Yeah, no, I would love to go there. I mean, because one of the things you’re making me think about this curiosity, this wanting to know how things work when kids, kids are always trying to make sense of the world, that is way too hard for them to make sense of. And so they fill in the blanks. They have to make guesses because they don’t have explanation for how everything works. And when they have really big gaps in their narrative, in their understanding, they will fill it in, usually, especially really young kids with very egocentric or magical thinking. I talk about this on other episodes of this podcast, but in context of other things like how do we help? We really need to help children make sense of what is happening to them so that they can not fill in those blanks on their own because they tend to fill it in with things that make them feel way more anxious, usually like, I caused this, or this could happen to anybody, anytime.

Steve (13:25):

Yes, I’m with you 50% of the way, and maybe you’re implying this and we’re a hundred percent aligned. But one thing I’ll tell you, when I learned this lesson, maybe this will be instructive. When I moved to Israel to begin studying to become a rabbi, I volunteered for the Big Brother program in Israel, which is for obvious reasons, run by the army. And I was assigned a 10-year-old little boy named Golly Hoja, whose father had been killed in the 1982 war in Lebanon. That’s one of the years I lived in Israel. He had a 7-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother. His mother was from Kurdistan. They lived in one of the slums in Jerusalem and spoke no English at all. So I spent about 10, 12 hours a week with this little guy, and that’s how I learned Hebrew. And he said to me one time, Steve, I’m going to see my father again.


This is when we were sitting in the tree house, we built outside his house and he said, I’m going to see my dad again. I said, really? When he said, well in the world to come, we’re going to be together again. And I 22-year-old genius that I was, I said, no, golly, that isn’t true. You’re not going to see him again. I relayed this story to the social worker who was overseeing this case and she said, you made a mistake. You do not need to dispossess a child of his or her beliefs in order to replace them with an option that ultimately will serve them better. So what you could have said, Steve, I’ll never forget this. She really helped me. She said, what you could have said is, golly, a lot of people believe that, and some people believe this and some people believe this. And you lay out some options for the kids that doesn’t dispossess them immediately of what has for better or for worse, filled in the blank, right? Yes. And yes, it’s usually filled in with some fantastical thinking or anxiety or both. And yeah, we need to do the repair, but we don’t have to take the scaffolding down while we build the repair. That’s my only point. I don’t know if you agree?

Dr. Sarah (16:00):

And I actually do fully agree with you. I think what I mean to say in terms of helping children fill in the blanks is when we as parents just shut the conversation down because we have too much anxiety, then the kids are left with nothing but their own devices to fill in the blanks and we don’t have as much control over what they fill it in with. And if kid, if this boy were talking about filled it in with it is my fault that he’s gone, you would want to help him.

Steve (16:30):


Dr. Sarah (16:31):

Reframe that.

Steve (16:32):

Absolutely. Yes. So okay, remind me later. We should probably get into the theology of death too for kids because what’s God’s role in all of this, right, or lack thereof? In any case, the main question that I get from parents when there’s a death in the family is when their children start asking if they’re going to die. Mommy, are you going to die like grandma died? Now the challenge for the parent is you want to comfort your child, but you don’t want to lie or mislead, right? So I use this, I suggest and often use what I call a laddering out technique.


I tell the truth, yes, yes, Sarah, I’m going to die, daddy’s going to die. We’re all going to die. All living things die. You see the leaves? Do you remember the goldfish? All living things die, but I’m not going to die until you finish nursery school and go to kindergarten. And then after that you’re going to go to high school and when you turn 16, you are going to learn how to drive and you’re going to be able to drive a car. And then when you’re 18, you’re going to finish high school and you’re going to go off and learn something that you might want to do for your job. And then after that, someday you’re going to find someone and fall in love and you’re going to make a family someday. And then daddy and I are going to be the nana and papa and you’re going to be the mommy and you’re going to have a baby, and I am going to die, but not till I’m very, very, very old like nana was. Now we all know you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, but this is no different than telling a four or 5-year-old, the plane’s not going to crash when you take off. There’s a tiny percentage of a chance that the plane could crash, but you don’t need to tell your kid that that’s not required. Play the odds and the odds are, Sarah, you’re going to be very, very, very old when you die. Now, do you remember how old you thought your parents were when you were a kid?

Speaker 3 (19:12):


Steve (19:13):

Okay. And how old you thought your grandparents were? Yeah. And how long a year was, let alone all these steps. This dials down the anxiety because kids know, okay, my mom is not bullshitting me. She told me the truth, but man, I really don’t have to worry about that today. That is a long time from now, and I think that is the honest best approach for both parties, for the parent who doesn’t want to lie but doesn’t want to create for their anxiety, we should back up too, Sarah, and talk about preparing children for the funeral.

Dr. Sarah (19:56):


Steve (19:58):

First of all, I think it’s a good idea for them to spend a couple of minutes with the rabbi or priest or officiant, whoever it is, and I think it’s important for kids to know what they’re going to see and hear. Mommy and daddy are going to be sad. We love nana too. And you might see crying and it’s okay to be saddened to cry, and you might hear a kind of crying that you haven’t heard before, which is very, very loud and comes from very deep inside people’s hearts that are hurting. It’s called wailing.


I remember when my Auntie Gita was wailing at my grandmother’s funeral and I had never heard anything like it, seen anything like it and had not been prepared for it. People are going to get up and talk about nana. This is called a eulogy. We’re going to tell some stories. Are there any stories you want to talk about to me or to the rabbi so that we can share them? Do you want to draw something to put with Nana’s body that’s going to return to the earth, engage them in this, prepare them for it. We’re going to get in the car, we’re going to go to this place called the summit, walk them through what’s going to happen, and then they’re not going to be so freaked out. And then I’m going to say to the kids, I know you talked to Mommy about what’s going to happen.


I’m going to be right here with you all the time. If you have any questions, you just let me know. We can stop this at any time. If there’s something you want to talk about that you want to know and just come on, you prepare these kits for their first baseball game. You protect them. You put on the helmet and the pads and you talk to them, or you’re taking them to Dodger Stadium or Yankee Stadium for the first time. Oh, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get on the subway. We’re going to get up here, and you’re not going to believe the food that we’re going to have peanuts. We’re going to have hot dogs. You prepare kids for life. So what’s with not preparing them for death?


So these are some of the most basic things that we need to prepare for. And yes, these are the kind of most likely scenarios. There are traumatic, horrible things that also happen, and those need to be approached a little differently with children because it flies in the face of the not for a very long time when a very, very, very old response. Sometimes you can’t say that because the evidence doesn’t support it. You can say what happened to Susie’s mommy is very, very rare. It almost never happens. And now depending upon the age of the kid, you could even go so far and say, that is not going to happen to me again. It’s the plane’s not going to crash as kids get older. My son, for example, had a friend on his baseball team in little league. He was 12 I think, got hit in the head with a baseball and went to sleep and died in his sleep. That’s a different conversation with my son than a grandparent dying.


My son at 25, 1 of his best friends was killed crossing the street at three in the morning after drinking too much and walking home to be safe. He was hit by a car and a hit and run and took a year to find the driver. He was brain dead. That was a different conversation with my son and that was walking into that ICU with him to say goodbye to his friend David and being giving him space and being strong at the same time with him. That was the theological conversation about the limits to God’s power and that believing, being a good person protects you from evil is like believing the bull’s not going to charge you because you’re a vegetarian. It’s like it doesn’t work that way. And there’s an age at which kids need to know that. They need to know that goodness is its own reward. It doesn’t protect you from evil. Looking both ways does. I mean, there are things we can do to be safer.

Dr. Sarah (25:10):


Steve (25:10):

But there is nothing we can do to guarantee that bad things won’t happen to us.

Dr. Sarah (25:17):

I think that comes up a lot in my work. I know again, work with kids who have very high anxiety sometimes, and there is a tendency for them to ask a lot of reassuring questions. You’re definitely not going to die. Are you sure you’re not going to die? And then you can promise me the dad’s not going to die too. So I find very, what I typically tell parents, and I’m curious your thoughts on this, is when you have a kid who is perseverating on death and it’s got this anxious quality, or for example when there’s a situation that, yeah, it’s not typical, you hit that unprobable, but possible bad lotto ticket is to not get so hung up on the content of the worry. This isn’t likely to happen. This is speaking to the worry brain, but instead to just pull back and say, name the feeling, right? You’re worried about this. It is so hard to feel worried about something that can feel so scary and we don’t have control over. It makes sense that that’s scary. I usually say fewer words than that for younger kids, but some sort of acknowledgement of the underlying thing instead of getting stuck in the minutia of the content of the worry, because you can talk to your face turns blue and you’re not going to make them any less worried. You might even make them more worried.

Steve (26:39):

Yeah. It’s not about the odds, in other words.

Dr. Sarah (26:41):


Steve (26:43):

Correct. I think that’s really, really good advice. And I think it points to sort of a large construct, which is anxiety is the symptom. It’s not the disease or the cause, right? Anxiety is not the cause of anxiety, it’s the result of something else.

Dr. Sarah (27:08):

Right? And I think it’s the result of believing you can’t handle the feeling of anxiety or that you can’t tolerate the uncertainty of whatever the thing is. And the reality is that is what anxiety is. Anxiety is a fear of being afraid. It’s not fear. We all have fear.

Steve (27:26):

That’s right. Yes. By the way, I don’t know how much you know about me and my private versus public persona, but in the fall of 2020, I made the decision to talk publicly and openly, not only to my congregation, but I do regular segments on the Today Show. And I went on the Today Show, so millions of people could hear, and I talked about my underlying anxiety disorder that had gone untreated for my entire life until I was 60 years old. And I just couldn’t keep it locked in the basement of my psyche any longer. It flew out. I mean that basement door just flew open and it rushed out. And I sought and received excellent treatment and it changed my life.

Dr. Sarah (28:31):


Steve (28:31):

The stigma around anxiety and around mental health and around medication keeps people in prison. It keeps the demons in the basement pounding on the basement ceiling with a broomstick all day long animating your subconscious life. And it doesn’t have to be that way and you cannot solve it alone. The Talmud has this beautiful phrase, which is the prisoner cannot free himself. That’s such a powerful idea. We have to reach out. And so when I say that anxiety is the symptom, not the disease, I know I’m right, but I’m okay treating the symptom and the disease because for me, 125 milligrams of Zoloft turn the volume down enough in my head for me to get the help I needed to understand the origins of this disorder and how to quiet the voices of those demons most of the time. And how much more so for children. I just wish parents could recognize it and intervene because these children, as you know, they can’t get out of prison themselves. They can only show you symptoms that tell you they’re suffering. They may pull the hair out their head, they may lose their hair, they may lick their lips and have chapped lips. They may come home with a wet T-shirt from kindergarten because they’re chewing out because they’re so panicked. So if we can be aware of these signs, if we can dial into these frequencies in children’s hearts and souls, we can literally save their lives.

Dr. Sarah (30:54):

Yeah, I agree deeply with that. And it’s interesting because I think I find that, and I think this is very relevant to this idea of death, because that is such a core fear for so many adults, but I think this is true in all kinds of situations where we as parents, we as the grownups have our own feelings and fears and beliefs and thoughts and ideas about what something means for our kid. And usually, not always, but very often we’re projecting at least a part of our experience onto theirs.

Steve (31:24):

That’s right.

Dr. Sarah (31:25):

And so usually when I’m looking at a child who has anxiety about something, sometimes it’s completely unique to that child and completely independent of the parent’s anxiety. But very often there is a family systems dance that happens when your child has anxiety that they elicit and solicit from the parent efforts to turn that feeling off. And we feel very compelled to turn that feeling off for them. We too have a fear around distress and suffering.

Steve (31:58):

Or worse.

Dr. Sarah (31:59):

Or worse. And so our kid expresses a worry to us and we immediately say, you don’t have to worry about that. That’s not a thing. You’re fine. Change the subject, help you avoid it.

Steve (32:09):

Lemme explain what I mean by worse. Or the parent is so anxious for his or her own reasons that they’re fine with the child’s anxiety. You should be worried about this. I’m worried about this. You should be worried about this too. My father, when I was a little boy, not that little, let’s say high school, and definitely when I came home from college for Thanksgiving or whatever, we would go out in the backyard and my dad would say, you see that tree over there? The oak tree underneath that tree on the north side, I buried some gold coins because God forbid we should ever have to buy bread. So my father grew up on public assistance in North Minneapolis, which today we call snap or welfare. He grew up very poor and he had a profound fear of poverty his entire life and raised all five of us children to believe that that was an appropriate and necessary fear. So it wasn’t even that he was dismissing trying to cover up our fear, not deal with it. He wanted to bestow that fear upon us.

Dr. Sarah (33:38):

And that is by definition, intergenerational transmission of trauma, right? Correct. He had this trauma and it informed so much of how he then parented because whether he was conscious of it or not, it was a threat and he needed to keep the threat away from his lineage.

Steve (33:56):

Yeah, I guess it’s…

Dr. Sarah (33:57):

I mean, it was a perception of a threat versus an actual threat.

Steve (34:01):


Dr. Sarah (34:01):

And that’s where we get into trouble.

Steve (34:03):

Right. And it is, I guess what I’m saying is that either end of the spectrum is bad parenting, either dismissing the fear and anxiety out of hand. Oh, that’s not going to happen. You don’t have to worry about that. Or transmitting that fear and anxiety as a positive in life. So both sides of the spectrum, most things like religion, I was thinking about your organized religion concept, which we’ll get back to in a minute, but it is extremism. That’s the danger on either side of the spectrum being completely dismissive or wanting to transfer all of the trauma to the next generation just in case. So you want to hear a funny joke about that?

Dr. Sarah (35:00):

Always. Yes.

Steve (35:04):

It’s a joke about Jews, but I think it could be a joke about anyone. So the Jewish pessimist says, oh my God, things could not be worse. And the Jewish optimist says, of course, they could.

Dr. Sarah (35:27):

Both thoroughly entrenched in their worries.

Steve (35:31):

Yes, yes. So it’s the extremes that are bad. Yes.

Dr. Sarah (35:36):

And I think to be fair, I know you are sort of saying it in a exaggerated way, but bad parenting, I would reframe that as parenting without reflective awareness, which is yes, problematic, but it’s not a choice. It’s not like I’m going to choose to be a bad parent or a dismissive parent. It’s that I don’t realize that I’m doing it because I can’t see it, or I’m infusing my child with all of my unchecked anxiety because I can’t see that. And so me…

Steve (36:11):

You are a hundred percent right. You’re right. Bad parenting was a bad way of putting it. I think it is…

Dr. Sarah (36:17):

I got to protect my parents out there.

Steve (36:18):

Well, no, I think that’s your job, and you’re right. And it is human understandable parenting. But if we can avoid some of it, it makes a real difference. And nobody wakes up in the morning deciding to traumatize and ruin their children. That’s not why we have children. But there is a lot of unconscious or subconscious parenting that really damages our kids, including by the way, overcompensating for our own parenting.

Dr. Sarah (37:00):


Steve (37:01):

Right. I wasn’t hard enough on our kids because my dad was all over me all the time. So we overcompensate. But then again, if our kids didn’t grow up with some dissonance about us, you wouldn’t have a job.

Dr. Sarah (37:20):

It’s true. And that’s the thing, it’s like, what is the antidote to what you’re talking about? I don’t think it’s about being perfectly middle of the road, but it is about being introspective. It’s about building awareness. It’s about giving yourself some grace when you notice you’ve done something that hasn’t been helpful because obviously you weren’t doing that on purpose. But can I adapt? Can I become more flexible with the way that I show up as a parent now that I have this information?

Steve (37:50):

Yeah. Yes.

Dr. Sarah (37:57):Death and the meaning it gives to our lives, plus working through our own anxiety, be it about death or another challenging part of life is how we break cycles and raise a generation of children who are more attuned to and in touch with their emotions. That is no small topic. And there was just so much to fit into this episode. So my conversation with Rabbi Steve Leader will continue next week. So tune in next Tuesday as we address how to field questions about the afterlife, the best and worst things to say to someone who is grieving, how to model for our kids, the power of showing up in the face of loss, and how to embrace the nonlinear process of grieving. It’s a beautiful conversation. You won’t want to miss it. So thanks for listening. And if you enjoyed this episode, please give it a five star rating and leave a review. And as always, don’t be a stranger.

192. Death, grief, and parenting: How we can help our kids make sense of and make peace with death with Rabbi Steve Leder