Love is strong as death. — Hebrew scripture, Song of Solomon, 8:6
I sometimes feel wrapped, cocooned in love. I often feel it most strongly right before I go to sleep. Then I think of my parents who died years ago and remember what the priest told me when I grieved for my father. “People die,” he told me. “They rot and turn to dust. But love is forever.” — Agnes Collard
IN SUNDAY’S SESSION… We talked about ways of understanding death, drawing on wisdom from the sixth Unitarian Universalist Source, “Spiritual teachings of earth centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” This Source is expressed in children’s language as “the harmony of nature and the sacred circle of life.” The children heard a story from Madagascar, in which the first man and woman are given a choice: Would humans die like the moon, in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, or die like banana plants, to be gone from earth forever but leaving a shoot behind that creates new life. Children discussed which choice they would have made. They made Memory Flowers to honor dead loved ones and next week will share in a ritual of Love and Remembering, placing their flowers in a common vase as a symbol that love lives beyond death.
EXPLORE THE TOPIC TOGETHER. Follow your child’s lead in talking about death. These tips may help you be ready, when the topic comes up:
- It is important to model to children that it is okay to talk about death. Affirm their feelings, questions, and comments without judgment. Respond honestly with simple but realistic language. Assure them you are open to talking with them and answering their questions.
- Listen carefully to children’s questions. Make sure you understand what is being asked before you offer an answer. When you have answered simply but honestly, give children the opportunity to either accept the answer or ask another question.
- Avoid flooding children with too much information. Watch for cues that they have heard enough or are having a strong emotional reaction to the conversation.
- Avoid euphemisms. For example, “went to sleep” might confuse children and cause them to be afraid of sleeping.
- Affirm that there are many different beliefs about death and as Unitarian Universalists we think people are free to choose their own beliefs.
- It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
- Reassure children that they and the people who take care of them are likely to live for a very long time (unless, of course, the person in question is very ill). Be careful, however, not to make any promises. We expect to live for a long time, but we cannot promise that.
- If a child refers to someone who is ill, very old, or dying, you can acknowledge their observation and state that we do not know exactly what will happen or when. Reassure the child by referencing the people who are caring for the person who is ill, as well as naming the people who will take care of the child.
- Do not be surprised if the child moves quickly between topics, first speaking about death and then changing the subject to something entirely unrelated. A child may need time to process their thoughts or may need emotional distance from the topic. They will often come back to the conversation when they are ready.
EXTEND THE TOPIC TOGETHER. Try… making a family tree together. You might include loved ones in your extended family, including relatives by adoption and remarriage. You may wish to include pets, as well. Talk about family stories that have been passed down. Focus on legacies each loved one left behind—ways their lives and their acts of love are still part of your family.
Family Adventure. Create a compost worm bin together and begin to compost your food wastes. A simple worm bin can be made by drilling air ventilation holes into a plastic container with a lid. Learn the benefits of composting and find instructions to make either a simple or more complex worm bin on the Watershed Activities website (at www.watershedactivities.com/projects/winter/wormbin.html).
Family Discovery. Many books introduce death and dying to children in an age-appropriate way.
- Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles tells the story of a Navajo girl and her dying grandmother.
- The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown describes children finding and burying a dead bird.
- The Dead Tree by Alvin Tresselt talks about interdependence and the cycle of life as viewed through the life of an oak tree.
- The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia looks at death through the perspective of a leaf in the autumn.
- I’ll Always Love You by Wilhelm Hans tells the story of a boy grieving when his dog dies.
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Bryan Mellonie is a direct, unsentimental description of life cycles for various creatures, including humans.
- Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child (at www.uuabookstore.org/) by Earl A. Grollman (Beacon Press, 1993) is a guide for children and parents to read together when your child is seeking answers.
- The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, by Judith Viorst. A child works through his grief after his cat dies by listing things he loved about his cat.
A Family Ritual. Memorialize the death of a loved one by creating an annual remembering day, perhaps on the anniversary of the death. Your activities should reflect that person. You might make their favorite food, visit a place they liked to go, gather flowers that were their favorite, or share memories and stories about them.