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The great mystery: Talking about death

By Michelle Richards

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The absence of comforting certainties in Unitarian Universalism is a particular challenge for parents when it comes to talking to our children about death. Because so many of us aren’t sure ourselves about what happens after a person dies, we have a tendency to waffle when we try to answer our children’s questions.

​I remember all-too-well the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness that threatened to consume me when my daughter’s best friend died in a tragic accident. I knew Shannon was looking for reassurance from me, but I felt that I had none to offer her. We talked endlessly about what other people believe, but in being honest with her, I had to share with her that I really didn’t know if there is something that comes after this life. For me, death is truly the greatest mystery we will ever confront, and perhaps never truly resolve. Because of this, I mourned not only the loss of Shannon’s friend but my ability to offer her solace in this time of need.

However, I have since learned that our late night talks and the bonding that took place as we cried together helped her through what was unquestionably the most difficult time of her life. Looking back on it now, I’m convinced those answers I so desperately wanted would not have made her experience any easier.

​Although we parents may long for the easy answers other religious traditions seem to offer, the reality is that even parents who have those answers at their disposal often discover that their children find little comfort in them. Some children and youth may feel so angry at a divine presence who took their loved one away that they actually reject their family’s religious beliefs, or they may develop a paralyzing fear that they will be the next to go.

​Because nothing can cause us to question our religious beliefs like the death of someone close to us, intense grief can often be a game-changer. The only thing about death that we can be certain of is that grief is a process—often a long and excruciating one—and that family members can support each another as they move through it at their own pace. And perhaps parents and children alike can find reassurance in a supportive religious community that embraces them in both the good times and the bad.

​More than definitive answers, our children and youth need to know that they can express their feelings of anger, guilt, and deep sorrow—and that it’s okay to feel these things. It’s also important for them to understand that grief is a process and there is no one right way to move through it.

​What questions have your children and youth had about death? Were you comfortable with your responses to their queries? Has your family had to deal with the acute sense of grief that comes with losing loved ones to death? How did your family make it through the experience? What support did you receive from your religious community? Is there anything you would do differently if you found yourself in a similar situation?

​While understanding the process of grief and the cycle of life cannot erase the deep pain of loss, it can open doors to a child’s faith development and reflection and possibly even lead to the development of a credo that is right for them at this time in their lives. And by modeling the ways we remember those important to us, we can teach children that no one is ever truly “gone” or forgotten if they touched the life of someone else.

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