On the day of Yom Kippur in 1973, Israel was suddenly attacked by Egypt, and in the ensuing battle with Egyptian forces, many lives were lost. Following the war, the Rebbe sent letters of encouragement to the wounded and to the families of those who lost their lives.

One of those who sought advice from the Rebbe was a widow who struggled to explain death to her young, orphaned children. She wrote:

To the esteemed Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, may you live and be well….

During this very difficult time [of war], G‑d was with us, and we succeeded in standing strong against all of the nations. Nevertheless…because I remain a widow with no father for my children, it is hard for me to educate them and to bring them up in the best and proper way. It is hard for me to stand alone against such a large world with all the adversity out there. Because my children have a proud Jewish heritage, Rebbe, I have questions that I would like to ask.

I have one daughter who is seven years old and one boy who is five. How do I explain that their father’s death came through self-sacrifice to G‑d’s will?

My son is asking me, “Mother, when Moshiach comes, the dead will return and then Father will come back. So why doesn’t Moshiach come now?”

How do I answer these questions? In my eyes, these questions, which are so fundamental, may have an effect on my children’s beliefs and thoughts.

I would be honored if the Rebbe would advise me.

The Rebbe answered:

Explain to [your children] the way it is in truth: that there are souls that are so pure and holy that G‑d wants them to be in the heavens, after they have completed their mission in this world, and guard over all the sons and daughters of Israel who live in the Holy Land.1

Orphaned children are often plagued by doubts about their parent’s early passing. They might wonder if a premature death is a sign of deficiency, or even iniquity, in their parent. These kinds of speculations can lead children to develop feelings of shame around the memory of their parent and his or her death.

In his response, the Rebbe addresses this issue in a twofold manner. First, he explains that, in general, untimely death can be a sign of remarkable virtue, of “a soul so pure and holy that G‑d wants them to be in heaven” or of one who was quick to “complete their mission in this world.” Second, the Rebbe points out that, in the case of their father, the noble mission was clear to all; he had altruistically sacrificed his life to “guard over all of the sons and daughters of Israel.” Is there a greater merit in the world?

There’s another insightful detail to be learned from the Rebbe’s words: “Explain to them the way it is in truth….” Perhaps with these few words, he was subtly telling the widow that this is not just a sugarcoated way of explaining death to children, but it is the true reality—and a belief which, if she could make it her own, would be transmitted to her children too.

The Rebbe’s letter characteristically concludes by emphasizing the possibility for a continued positive relationship between the father and the children:

In the heavens, [those who were taken] intercede for all their relatives and loved ones, and especially for their children, and they ask from G‑d that their children succeed in their studies and conduct. When their children conduct themselves properly, that is the biggest pleasure that the soul can have—and that’s how it continues to remain alive.