The great mystery: Talking about death

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.

Published by

Michelle Richards

Michelle Richards is a credentialed religious educator and religious education consultant for the Central Midwest District. Previously, she was the director of religious education for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, Indiana, for seven years, and the chair of the Central Midwest District's Religious Education Committee. Richards is the author of "Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children" and "Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting," both from Skinner House Books.

  • lizgrimes

    We adopted a two year old child in 1989 that had a terminal illness. He had a life expectancy of only about 2 years more at that time. He lived to 2003 and the age of 17. Robbie was an incredible young man that taught everyone that came in contact with him so very much. At the time of his death, it was the congregation that held my family together. The support and love we received during the time leading up to his death and for months following was wonderful. It was our strong faith as Unitarian Universalists that held me and my husband together. We were able to grieve openly, loudly and for ever how long we needed to. Our youngest child was only 8 years old at the time. The other adults at the church that took him under their wings and helped him through the grieving process so that his parents could also grieve. They gave him space to work through his questions, cry without making his mother cry, express his anger at a God that would allow his older brother to suffer so, and accept the new life he found himself in. They also helped make his life a little bit more normal–going to see movies, going swimming, and generally allowing him to just hang out and be. I will be forever indebted to those people for helping to keep me sane and holding my family together when I could not.

  • ericaholman

    My 6 year old has been expressing strong emotions of sadness and anger, sometimes in relation to his dad whom he has never met. He has also been asking questions about when he was a baby & when people he loves will die. It seems to all be related to loss–do you agree & do you know any resources for me or both of us that will guide us through this stage of processing information & expressing emotions?

  • Michelle Richards

    It does sound as if your child has been focusing on these issues and his unexpressed emotions may be behind the sadness and anger he is expressing. Often using non-verbal activities to act out or express hidden feelings can be an effective outlet for children this age. Drawing, painting, sculpting or creating something can be a way for him to reveal thoughts that may be too painful for him to express verbally. Playing with puppets or dolls has also been a successful tool for getting a child to open up about painful subjects.

    Remember that each of us grieves in our own way, and children do, too. Just because he never met his father doesn't mean he doesn't feel the loss of such a person in his life. Encourage him to tell his story (or act it out with puppets, draw a picture about it, etc) and listen non-judgmentally as he offers his story of grief. It is also natural for him to feel afraid that since his father is gone from his life, others he loves may also “leave” him as the result of death. This can cause abandonment issues in some children or at least the fear of abandonment by loved ones.

    At age six, he is probably beginning to understand that death is permanent and not a temporary condition as most preschoolers perceive it. However, six year olds also have a tendency to over generalize and make assumptions (Grandpa was coughing before he died, now Mom is coughing, too, and so she will die). Encourage his questions and answer them in simple, concrete ways while reassuring him that you will do everything to keep himself safe (and yourself as well) and that while accidents do happen, it is unusual for them to be so bad that it causes death. Likewise, you can reassure him that although sickness can sometimes cause death, most of the time it can be fixed or cured. Express that most people live long and full lives and that you fully expect the two of you will have that experience.

    As far as resources go, there is the Mr. Roger's website ( which includes a booklet for grieving children ages 4-10, and the Dougy Center for Children at has lots of wonderful resources for children and grief. You might also approach your minister for local resources or counseling services which are available to children expriencing grief in your area.

  • Anonymous

    This is definitely a difficult period to live through for adults, but even more so for children. I do not have children of my own, but I do work with children frequently, and I’ve found that if you’re honest with them, that honesty — delivered with gentility and compassion — can go a long way in beginning the process of grieving. Secondly, perhaps, acknowledging that though no one really knows what happens, living a full and happy life becomes even more important. You could bring up examples of doing well in school; helping those in need and leaving the world a better place. That’s a good way to approach the discussion, I think.