DEALING WITH DEATH
IN THE SECULAR FAMILY

REV. DR. KENDYL GIBBONS

The human impulse to deny the reality of death is deep and ancient. It affects us all, including our children. One of the challenges of parenting is to introduce this subject and help them respond to it in developmentally appropriate ways.

There is a great deal of helpful literature about how children deal with death, and both secular and religious children have the same needs for reassurance and support when they begin to confront mortality. The challenge for secular families is the absence of the comforting answers supplied by various faith traditions. Yet by telling the truth, providing emotional comfort, and validating the child’s own experiences, secular parents can give their children the tools to understand and accept death as a natural part of life and to find meaning in their grief.

imageThe challenge for secular families is the absence of the comforting answers supplied by various faith traditions. Yet by telling the truth, providing emotional comfort, and validating the child’s own experiences, secular parents can give their children the tools to understand and accept death as a natural part of life and to find meaning in their grief.image

The reality of death touches our lives in at least two distinct ways. The most obvious is when someone important to us dies. A second way is through the realization that we and those we love must someday die.

Dealing with Ordinary Death

Natural death is still challenging for children, as it is for all of us. That grandparents and older relatives may die while a child is young is always a possibility, and the death of shorter-lived pets is inevitable. In such situations, secular parents will want to emphasize the naturalness of such deaths and how they are part of the cycle of life. But no matter how expected such a loss may be, it still requires all of us, children and adults alike, to move through the process of grieving.

Grief is a journey without shortcuts, and if it is approached with acceptance, it leaves us wiser, more mature, and more loving than we were before.

imageOne of the important gifts that parents can give their children is the knowledge that adults also grieve and that it is painful and hard work for everyone.image

One of the important gifts that parents can give their children is the knowledge that adults also grieve and that it is painful and hard work for everyone. At the same time, parents know what children do not: that healing and growth will come, and something precious will be gained through the process. We can help our children to grieve in a healthy way by assuring them that the process does move forward, even when it feels endless.

It’s okay to feel sad. I’m sad too. But I know that after a while we will feel better again. We will be able to think about Blue and be happy while we remember him. It just takes time.

It is also important to acknowledge that grief takes many forms and is changeable. A child may experience obvious sadness and withdrawal, but at times may also exhibit manic energy, regressive behavior, anger, fear, or denial. All of these are normal feelings and coping strategies that adults may have as well.

It can be harder to go to sleep when you are thinking how much you miss Grandma. I miss her, too. Would you like a nightlight or your old blankie for a while?

Children are paradoxically both concrete and magical thinkers. On the one hand, they will make visible, tangible realities out of abstract concepts; on the other hand, they often think themselves responsible for events that are out of their control. The child may imagine, for example, that her momentary feeling of anger toward the deceased brought about the death. It is important to assure her that she is not responsible for a person or a pet dying. Children may not speak of these apprehensions, so it is wise to offer the affirmation unasked.

Grandmother died because she was old and ill. We all took the best care of her that we could. It wasn’t anybody’s fault.

Ceremony and ritual may be helpful to children and adults. Ceremony is a formal act that is thoughtfully planned, even though it may be done only once. Ritual is usually an act that gathers meaning through repetition. While both can be associated with religious beliefs, they do not have to be. They can be public, or private, or personal. A formal memorial service in a church would be a public ceremony; going alone to visit your grandfather’s favorite park every year on his birthday would be a personal ritual. Ceremonies help to structure the time of grieving, which can feel amorphous and hard to define. Working with children to make a plan so they have something to anticipate can give them a sense of landmarks, as well as permission to move forward in their mourning.

imageChildren are paradoxically both concrete and magical thinkers. On the one hand, they will make visible, tangible realities out of abstract concepts; on the other hand, they often think themselves responsible for events that are out of their control.image

Tomorrow afternoon, let’s bring all of Tuffy’s toys and dishes and put them in a special box to give to the animal shelter. If you want, you can choose something to keep. We can take turns saying things that we remember about him.

Why don’t you come to the store with me in the morning and pick out some flowers? We can take them to the retirement home where Uncle Gordon lived and sit on his special bench for a few minutes.

Rituals help to reassure children that the world is still dependable and that the person or pet they have lost will continue to be part of their lives through memory.

Each year at Thanksgiving, we’ll have a toast to Grandma and remember the time she dropped the turkey.

Before you go to sleep each night this week, let’s write down one thing that you liked about your teacher Mr. Gonzales.

Once a child adopts a ritual, he may find comfort in it long after the adults have moved on. Be patient with a child’s attachment to whatever comforts her, and help children develop personal rituals that they can maintain as long as they need to without placing unreasonable demands on the rest of the family.

Five Affirmations in the Face of Death

There are five affirmations that everyone needs to hear when confronted with the death of a loved one. They may be part of public ceremonies like a memorial service, or we may need to work through them in our own ways as a family or as individuals. Parents can help their children by making sure that each of these statements is clearly made, and some of them may need to be repeated.

1. Acknowledge the reality.

The first affirmation is that death has actually taken place; it is the antidote to denial. This is why most cultural traditions arrange for wakes, viewings, funeral services, and burials; it helps the reality of loss to sink in. Even fairly young children can be consulted about whether they wish to view the body or attend public ceremonies. On the one hand, children may find seeing the body of their grandparent or pet reassuring, since it may be far less terrible than their imaginings. Being denied this opportunity may create a lack of closure. On the other hand, being pressured to do so if they do not wish to can make a difficult moment more traumatic. A sensitively attentive parent will listen carefully to the child’s preferences and help him make a choice based on the child’s wishes rather than the parent’s expectations.

The wishful impulse of denial can be powerful in a child’s thinking, so that the fact of death may need to be repeated. The idea of impermanence, that something may vanish without being able to reappear, is something that develops over time in the mind, and a young child may struggle with it. Though it may be difficult for a grieving parent, the reality of a death should be calmly restated whenever the child questions it. She is not being silly or uncaring but trying to understand how the world works.

2. Validate sadness.

The second affirmation is that loss is painful and sadness is appropriate. It is important to acknowledge the reality of powerful feelings that we do not control. Telling anyone “Don’t cry” or “Don’t feel bad” is not helpful at the time of bereavement. It is especially confusing to children, who may take this as a cue that there is something wrong with their emotional responses. When we have loved someone or something, our sorrow is a function and measure of that love. Loss would not be painful if there had not been a profound attachment, and in the end, our capacity for such connections makes our lives fulfilling and meaningful.

3. Acknowledge the unknown.

Secular families in particular can emphasize the unknown aspect of death. Whatever we think happens to people after they die is speculation. One of the most powerful lessons parents can teach is that adults don’t know everything. This does not mean that we cannot communicate our convictions to our children, but in this realm, as in others, it is important to leave room for them to explore their own ideas. Avoid telling children that death is like sleep, as this has often been observed to disrupt their sense of safety in falling asleep themselves or allowing others to sleep. In their concrete thinking process, children may want to know where the dead person “goes.” It is all but inevitable in our culture that their peers or others will talk about the idea of heaven, and perhaps even hell. Children may also have fears about the dissolution of the body, thinking this process will be painful for their loved one.

Secular parents can affirm their own conviction that death is the end of all personal experience, that there are no places where the spirits of the dead “go,” and that no pain or suffering is possible for the deceased. It may be helpful to present these as “I” statements—“This is what I believe”—and to acknowledge that there are many other ideas, including those that the child may have heard or may be exploring in their own mind. It can be comforting even for adults, who have no actual belief in such ideas, to imagine the kind of next world or existence that would be particularly gratifying for the deceased; such pleasant fantasies may have a healing effect as long as they are acknowledged as wishes rather than realities. Such imaginings on the part of children can be treated as part of the grieving process and affirmed as feelings rather than facts.

Dog heaven is a lovely idea. I think Blue would like a place where he could run through the grass and chase sticks all day long and never get tired.

People have lots of different ideas about what might happen after someone dies, but no one knows for sure. What do you like to think Aunt Chandra might be doing?

Before you were born, you didn’t exist—you didn’t feel anything at all. I think that’s what it’s like for Gramps now; he isn’t there anymore, so he can’t think or feel, and certainly nothing can hurt him. What do you think?

4. Celebrate individuality.

Each individual is unique and irreplaceable; this is what makes our memories precious. It is also the reason for allowing an appropriate period of mourning to pass before seeking another pet. Children need permission to remember their loved one in ways that are meaningful to them. This may involve quietly looking at pictures or visiting a grave; it may take the form of talking about or wanting to hear stories about the deceased; it may be more active, such as drawing or writing about what they remember. Parents can affirm the child’s perception of what was irreplaceable about the lost one. It is seldom helpful to argue that other people can take the dead person’s place, or that other pets will be equally loved. At the same time, the child may need to be reassured that their life will go on in a safe way; there will be change, but the change will be manageable. Children may cling to artifacts of the deceased—clothing, a stray key, a pet’s bowl—for a long time as a tangible vessel for their memories. If possible, parents should not interfere in this, but indicate that the child will know inside themselves when the time comes to put the object away.

Blue did some funny things, didn’t he? Remember how he always loved to lie in the sun? And how he could always hear you coming?

We can still go fishing together, but it won’t be quite the same without Uncle Miguel to dig our worms for us, will it? He was really good at that.

5. Affirm the continuity of life.

The final affirmation tells us that the universe remains dependable; life goes on, and what we trusted in before the loss can still be trusted: love, integrity, family and friends, the world of nature. This assurance is communicated by parents more by how they speak and behave than by most of what they say, particularly by how honestly reflective they can be about acknowledging their own feelings. “It’s kind of scary sometimes to think about living in a world without my mom, but then I remember all the other people who care about me, and what a brave person she was, and I think we’ll all be okay”—this tells the child that feelings are both real in the moment and changeable, and can be faced. The most basic affirmation of all, that the opportunity to share love is worth the pain of grief, is as important to children as it is to the rest of us.

I’m glad we had Kitty as part of our family, even though I’m sad she died.

Particularly Difficult Situations

It is also possible that death may touch a child’s life in a more traumatic and difficult way. When someone is killed by violence or in a sudden accident, it is not a normal part of the cycle of life. When a sibling or friend near the child’s own age dies, it often feels more tragic and wasteful to the adults, and bewildering to the child, because such things are not “supposed” to happen. The same is true when a pet is hit by a car, or runs away and disappears. Despite the extra tragedy of such situations, children need much the same sort of reassurance, honesty, and permission to grieve as they do in more ordinary bereavement. The advice of psychological professionals can be very helpful and should be seen as an ordinary resource. Just as one would consult a doctor to be sure of healing properly from a physical trauma, checking in with a knowledgeable counselor is a routine aspect of handling emotional upheaval.

When confronted with a death by violence, children need to know that everything possible is being done to keep them safe and that it is very unlikely that anything like this will happen to them. The specifics will depend upon the situation, but it may help to emphasize that even adults do not always understand why people make the choices they make and do what they do. Children usually take comfort from the knowledge that the authorities are trying to catch and punish the perpetrator, because this communicates a sense of moral order in the world. Yet it is not helpful for them to displace all of their anger about death onto that individual because in the long run this will make healing more difficult for them.

When a young person dies of a disease, it is also important to assure children that they do not have the disease themselves and are likely to live for a very long time. This is another time when it must be confessed that adults don’t know everything, even though they try as hard as they can. Secular parents generally reject the explanations that god has a plan, or wanted the person in heaven, and so on. Children are able to grasp that random events sometimes happen for no good reason and that bodies do not always work the way they are supposed to.

Dying’s part of the wheel [of life], right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest.

—From Tuck Everlasting, by NATALIE BABBITT

When death is the result of an accident, parents may be tempted to drive home the moral of the story with reference to the child’s own potential behavior. Not only does it seem like a relevant object lesson, but assigning responsibility for carelessness is often a mechanism by which adults attempt to cope with random tragedy. However, a child may interpret such explanations as meaning that death is a punishment for something wrong that the deceased did, and that sorrow is therefore unjustified. To whatever extent an accidental death may be someone’s fault, it is important to emphasize that death is a disproportionately severe consequence.

Care must also be taken not to make the child unduly fearful. Secular parents cannot offer their children guardian angels; instead, we want them to assess risks rationally and to respond with courage as well as good sense. The child may be sensitive to particular circumstances, such as riding in a car following a bereavement by car accident, or going into the water after someone has drowned. This kind of hesitation should be treated with gentle respect, but at the same time parents can express their confidence that fatal mishaps are very rare, assuring the child that appropriate safety precautions—seat belts, lifeguards, etc.—can minimize risks.

Confronting Mortality

It is entirely possible in 21st-century Western culture for an individual to be well into middle age before a loved one dies. Children may not be confronted with the process of grieving for a person or pet they care about during childhood. Nevertheless, it is an inevitable part of the developmental process that they will be exposed to the idea of death and the dawning realization that they and those they love and depend upon will die.

The secular parent will wish to respond to this growing awareness with realism and reassurance. The younger the child, the more important it is on every occasion to announce that neither parent nor child should expect to die for a very long time. It is always good to explore a little when such questions are raised to see if there is some particular incident or comment in the child’s mind before embarking upon a philosophical discussion. But the moment will come when the child sincerely wants to know how parents have reconciled themselves to the thought of dying and how to make sense of this unwelcome news about the human condition.

It may be helpful to begin with the recognition that our evolutionary history has built into our species a very powerful instinct to want to live and has made our bodies very good at continuing to live. The desire to live helps us measure risks carefully and do what is necessary to take care of ourselves.

It is natural to think that we would like to live forever and for those we care about to live forever. But that’s not the way the world works. Rather, new life keeps popping up, and old life at some point dies. Nobody deliberately made it that way; that’s just how evolution turned out. For a child old enough to understand the outlines of the scientific origins of life, parents can emphasize how delicate and fragile was the first coming together of chemicals that resulted in living organisms, and how essentially unstable a process life is; any given individual is such a complex set of functions that it could not possibly operate correctly in all regards forever. Everything wears out eventually—even machines, even rocks.

Many people, including most of you reading this book, believe that death is the final end of all personal experience and do not expect to continue their existence in some other life or other world. In this view, it is precisely the fact that our lives are limited that makes them precious.

How we choose to use our time is all the more important when we know that we won’t have the opportunity to do everything. The fact that we can lose the ones we love makes it urgent for us to resolve our quarrels, forgive our injuries, be as thoughtful and kind as we can, and be sure to let those we love know about it. If we were immortal, it would not matter if we chose to spend our time being bored, cranky, or spiteful; as it is, we don’t have time to waste with such unproductive and unpleasant attitudes.

imageMany people . . . believe that death is the final end of all personal experience. . . . It is precisely the fact that our lives are limited that makes them precious.image

Secularism at its best can turn negative appraisals of death into affirmations of life. For a secular person, the question is not, “Why did a universe designed for our benefit have to include death?” but, “Isn’t it amazing that we have the matter of the world arranged in such a way that we find ourselves with this incredible opportunity to be awake and alive?” What is surprising is not that our awareness must cease to be at some point in the unknown future but that it has arisen now in the first place. That we are able to think and feel, to learn things and to love people, is a gift. It might just as easily not have happened.

There is a certain existential heroism and tragedy about living in the shadow of mortality that teens in particular sometimes find quite romantic. A sympathetic parent can acknowledge how trivial many mundane concerns may appear in this light and still insist that they be attended to. In general, what secular parents can most helpfully do for their children is to demonstrate that a full, happy, satisfying life can be lived even in the awareness that death comes at the end—perhaps even because of that awareness. Paradoxically, although many popular religious cults focus on attaining an afterlife and escaping the reality of death, in their origins, many of the world’s highest spiritual and philosophical teachings summon people to live with a clear awareness of death. Such practices are meant to lead to maturity, serenity, and an enhanced capacity for deep happiness. I know from personal experience that it is possible to grow from a secure childhood into a well-balanced adult without ever supposing that death is anything other than the absolute end of personal consciousness. Because of this conviction, I know how urgently precious my life and the lives of those around me are. I find that awareness to be life-giving.

There is evolutionary value in the fear of dying; it makes us take action when necessary and precautions when appropriate. A person with no fear of dying might be too careless or daring to survive for long. So it is normal to feel afraid when we think of dying. Secular parents can assure their children that everyone has these feelings to some degree. They are appropriate and even useful. When children express fears related to death, it is helpful to discover something about the content of that fear. Are they afraid that those they depend on will die and leave them without protection? Are they afraid that the process of dying will be painful? Are they troubled to think of not existing anymore, or think that it would hurt to be dead? The more specifically the issue is identified, the more effective a parent’s reassurance can be. In the end, the child will have confidence in the parents’ honesty if they calmly acknowledge that the same fears affect them.

Responding to Religious Doctrines and Cultural Images

It is all but inevitable that children will encounter ideas about death and what happens to the dead that will differ from those of their secular parents. Such alternative images may be appealing because they are more dramatic, colorful, or certain than what secular parents have offered. These may include ideas about heaven, hell, ghosts, reincarnation, and communication with the dead. It is certainly true that many people have experienced some sense of presence of loved ones who have died; a naturalistic explanation of these sensations need not deny that they can be comforting and healing or, alternatively, frightening. With older children it is possible to explore both the psychological reasons why people who are grieving might have such sensations and the ways unscrupulous others might try to take advantage of them. In some of the same ways, the ideas of heaven and hell can be discussed as present states of mind rather than future states of existence. With younger children, for whom the line between fantasy and reality is more permeable, it may be best to help them identify such concepts as stories that can be pleasant to think about, either for themselves or others. Endorsing the child’s capacity for imaginative comfort does not require the parent to affirm false realities.

The kind of heaven your friend is talking about seems like a nice idea, even though I don’t think it really exists. It’s nice to think we could see Grandma again someday; what would you like to say to her if that could happen?

Death confronts the secular family both as a challenge and an opportunity to clarify and communicate our convictions. It is part of the larger world that children encounter as they grow, a world that parents must help them understand. Ever since the origins of our kind, humans have pondered death as one of the ultimate mysteries and sought to soften its great shadow over us. Perhaps none of us is ever fully reconciled to the loss of those we love or to the inevitability of our own demise, but we learn to live as fully as possible within the unknown limits of the time we have. Living in the secular world gives us freedom from the dogmas and superstitions of the past, but it does not eliminate the mystery and power of life’s endings. When parents share those essentially human feelings with their children, they are engaged in the profound task of making meaning together, which is one of the great privileges of parenthood, or indeed of any human relationship.

Kendyl Gibbons is the senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church of Kansas City. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, she holds a master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a doctorate of ministry from Meadville/Lombard Theological School. In 2015 she was named Religious Humanist of the Year by the UU Humanist Association.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR “DEATH AND CONSOLATION”

Books

Miller, Matt. Facing Cancer Without God. Forward Publishing, 2014. An extraordinary personal memoir by a pioneering computer scientist who faced his impending death with the humor and intelligence that had characterized his life and without religious comforts. High school and adult readers.

Emswiler, James and Mary Ann. Guiding Your Child Through Grief. Bantam, 2000. Thorough, thoughtful, loving, well informed. This is a powerful resource for secular parents helping a child who is dealing with loss and grief. The Emswilers confront the questions head-on and in detail, offering specific advice for dealing with holidays, helping grieving teens, even helping grieving stepchildren. The only mention of religious beliefs is an excellent one. Parents are invited to “share whatever beliefs your religious tradition holds about death and the afterlife” but are also cautioned not to say, “God took Mommy because she was so good,” or, “God took Daddy because He wanted him to be with Him.” Think about the implications of those two statements for about 10 seconds and you’ll see why the Emswilers label them no-nos. “Don’t use God or religion as a pacifier to make grieving children feel better. It probably won’t work,” they note. “Do not explain death as a punishment or a reward from God.” So much for the single greatest alleged advantage of the religious view of death. For secularists, there is even more to be grateful for in this terrific book: “It is also acceptable to say you’re not sure what happens after death. . . . It is always okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Arent, Ruth P., MA, MSW. Helping Children Grieve. Champion Press, 2005. If a loss comes suddenly, parents might not have the time or freedom to read Guiding Your Child Through Grief. In that case, Helping Children Grieve is a thoughtful, concise resource achieving much the same. Once again, the issues children face are separated by age, and once again, religious traditions are provided as potential resources but not as answers to the problems grief presents.

Thomas, Pat. I Miss You: A First Look at Death. Barron’s, 2000. Secular parents in search of ways to help the youngest children deal with death and loss can hardly do better than this lovely little book. In a scant 29 pages of colorfully illustrated kid-lit format, it seems to anticipate most everything likely to go through the mind of a young one upon the death of someone special. Once again, religious ideas get a nod but are denied a pedestal: “There is a lot we don’t know about death. Every culture has different beliefs about what happens after a person dies. Most cultures . . . share . . . the idea that when a person dies their soul—the part of them that made them special—takes a journey to join the souls of other people who have passed away. It’s not an easy idea to understand.” It’s true, of course: Most cultures do share some form of that belief. But instead of following this acknowledgment with a hallelujah, Thomas chooses a Taoist metaphor, one that I have always found deeply moving: “Sometimes it helps if you think of the soul as a single raindrop, joining a great big ocean.” Ages three to eight.

Rothman, Juliet Cassuto. A Birthday Present for Daniel: A Child’s Story of Loss. Prometheus, 2001. A heartbreaking and beautiful story narrated by a girl whose brother has died and whose family struggles over how to observe his approaching birthday. Ages seven–ten.

Trozzi, Maria, M.Ed. Talking with Children About Loss. Perigee Trade, 1999. One of the premiere references in the field of child bereavement.

Dougy Center. 35 Ways to Help a Grieving Child. Dougy Center, 1999. A practical, accessible resource.

White, E. B. Charlotte’s Web. HarperCollins, 1952, renewed 1980. In his book The Philosophy of Childhood, contributor Gareth Matthews calls special attention to two works of fiction for their substantive treatment of mortality: Charlotte’s Web and Tuck Everlasting. Children in the terminal wards of hospitals request and read Charlotte’s Web over and over, especially after one among them dies. Death is not avoided or sugarcoated—it is the book’s pervasive theme, from Fern staying her uncle’s ax from Wilbur’s neck to Charlotte weaving “SOME PIG” to prevent him becoming the Christmas ham to Charlotte’s own demise and symbolic rebirth through the springtime hatching of her egg sac. Unnatural death is something to protest, goes the message—but natural death is to be accepted with grace and courage. A stunning work of American literature, to be enjoyed repeatedly. Special treat: Look for the audiobook of E. B. White reading Charlotte’s Web. Considered by many to be the finest children’s audiobook ever. If your public library does not own a copy, suggest it buy two. Ages four to adult.

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1985. The Tuck family has happened on the secret of eternal life—much to their dismay. In the absence of death, the Tucks discover that life loses much of its meaning and preciousness. A truly original book and a worthy follow-up movie (2002). Book ages nine–twelve; movie for all ages.

Websites/Organizations

Grief Beyond Belief (www.griefbeyondbelief.org). An online community created to facilitate peer-to-peer grief support for the nonreligious. A space free of religion, spiritualism, mysticism, and evangelism in which to share sorrow and offer the comfort of rational compassion.

The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families (www.dougy.org). An organization founded in 1982 to “provide support in a safe place where children, teens and their families grieving a death can share their experiences as they move through their grief process.” Website includes a search function to locate grief counseling centers across the United States and around the world.

The Good Grief Program at Boston Medical Center (http://www.bmc.org/pediatrics-goodgrief.htm). One of the top childhood grief counseling and research centers in the United States. Led by Maria Trozzi, M.Ed., author of Talking with Children About Loss (see above).

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