A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
@ Anthia Cumming/iStockphoto
Like many people on the social media website Facebook, I have been participating in the 30 Days of Gratitude project for the month of November. This has been a daunting challenge, as this month is always a difficult one for me.
The anniversary of the loss of two people who were very important in my life falls in November, and earlier this month, a friend I have known since elementary school passed away.
The skies are often gray here in northern Indiana, and a freezing rain falls because it is too early for snow but too late for warm autumn breezes. The days grow shorter because of the dwindling sunlight in the northern hemisphere. So during most dark Novembers, I long to just curl under my covers and hibernate.
Participating in this 30 Days of Gratitude project, however, has forced me to look on the bright side and find something (however small) to be thankful for. It reminds me that even in dark and gray November days there are people and comforts in my life that I should appreciate because life is fleeting.
It also causes me to think of how I express my feelings of gratitude to the amazing people in my life and remind them how important they are to me. For instance, after the memorial service for my childhood friend, my stepsister embraced me and told me that she loved me. This genuine act of caring on her part surprised me. Not because we don’t deeply care for each other, but because we (like most people) don’t really express these feelings frequently enough.
So I started thinking about how important it is that we express gratitude toward others. Inevitably it came down to considering how we as Unitarian Universalist parents teach our children to express their thankfulness. If we do not model this gratitude ourselves, how are they ever going to feel comfortable doing it?
There are people who keep gratitude journals and families who say grace before meals, but how often do we communicate our thankfulness for the small things in life to one another? What venue can we use to express our appreciation as a family and share with each other how important every member of the family is?
Then it occurred to me that an advent-style or 30-Days-of-Gratitude-type project in our homes might be a great vehicle for expressing our gratitude during this dark time of year. My family for years has created a chain of links to count down the December days until the Winter Solstice, when the shortest day of the year means the light will slowly return each day afterward. This year, I will suggest that as we cut the link off of the chain at the end of each day, we take the time to mindfully express our gratitude for someone or something that holds meaning for us. This will deepen our family ritual and, even more importantly, will lift up the importance of recognizing those things and people in our lives that we are most grateful for.
Death has touched our family again, for the fifth time in five years. You would think that we would be getting rather acclimated to the grieving process after having gone through so many losses in such a short time, but it is never easy.
This time there doesn’t seem to be as much soul-searching by my teenage daughter to understand why bad things happen; not as there was when, at age ten, her best friend was killed in a tragic accident. Now, after the death of her beloved but aging grandmother, she suffers from an abundance of guilt (for not spending more time with her) and struggles with biting her tongue when well-intended people speak of a theology which doesn’t match hers. Meanwhile, my eight-year-old son struggles with his own sense of mortality and—even worse, perhaps—mine. He is aware that his father was present when his mother took her last breath, which, unfortunately, is an all-too-acute reminder that his own mother will one day face death as well.
Parenting in times of intense grief is never easy, especially when we are in the midst of experiencing our own feelings of regret, anger, and sorrow. As Unitarian Universalist parents, many of us yearn for comforting words to say to our children because it tears us up inside to see them suffering. However, sometimes there are no words which can bring comfort from the grief. In times like these, our loving presence and support can offer them what they need. We can reassure them that we will be there for them when they need to talk, to vent, or even rant a bit.
As for dealing with the well-meaning words offered by others, I can help Shannon to recognize that while their words may not offer comfort through the ideas they express, it can be possible to find some support in why they are being expressed. I learned this important lesson from a very good friend of mine, also a Unitarian Universalist parent. After her daughter’s death, she heard many comments about angels and being with God, yet instead of feeling resentment over these words, she chose to “translate” these words into something which did offer her support.
Recognizing that people expressing such thoughts are well intentioned can help us embrace their concern for us, even when they share words that don’t fit our own personal theology. The reality is that most people really don’t know what to say, even as they struggle with the need to show they care. Embracing this care and concern expressed by well-meaning people can offer us some solace, even if their words do not.
I don’t pretend to know what happens after we die, and perhaps I will never know the answers the Great Mystery holds. However, I do know that if my in-laws are reunited together in some ethereal place like heaven, rejoined with some sort of greater cosmic consciousness, or are souls waiting to be reborn into a new existence, they’re probably arguing with each other over how long the green beans should be cooked in the pressure cooker. Unless, of course, they’re able to find themselves as part of a foursome playing Pinochle in the Great Beyond, and then I hope they have the winning hand.
Resources: “Talking about Death,” by Betsy Hill Williams (Connections, Church of the Larger Fellowship)
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.