Talking About Tough Issues: The ABCs of Death

"It was 1980, and I had been a Unitarian Universalist for about three years," says Dr. Bill Doherty, Director of the Marriage and Family Program at the University of Minnesota. "I had been a UU for about three years, when my seven-year-old son Eric asked me, ‘What happens after we die? Is there a heaven?' Being a good UU, I responded as follows: ‘Well, some people believe that when we die we go to heaven where we live forever, and other people believe that when we die, our life is over and we live on through the memories of people who have known and loved us.' To which Eric replied, ‘But what do you believe?' ‘Well, some people believe that after we die we go to heaven, and other people believe…'-at which point Eric interrupted me and asked again, ‘But what do you believe?'"

How many of you can sympathize with Bill Doherty's situation? Death can be a tough issue for Unitarian Universalist parents to talk about because we don't want to impose our personal beliefs on our children; we want them to discover their own authentic truth, just as we want this for ourselves. So what's a good Unitarian Universalist to do?

This is an issue that keeps on coming up in conversations with people, and so it's time to address it. So is this: the difficulty, which anyone-parent or not, UU or not-can relate to: knowing what to say when death in all its existential immediacy taps us on the shoulder. When a parent or spouse or partner dies. When a child or sibling or friend or hero dies. When we ourselves are going to die. In such moments, we can feel so inadequate, so awkward. Deep and difficult emotions overtake us like a tidal wave. Sometimes we say nothing; our tongues are like lead in our mouths. Other times, anxiety loosens our tongues and we find ourselves just talking up a storm-but in ways that, we suspect, are less than helpful. In the face of death, the sense of inadequacy and awkwardness remains. What to say?

Two tough issues are before us today, both converging on the topic of death. Can parents share their personal beliefs about death with their children in a way that is faithful to Unitarian Universalism? And, whether or not we are parents or UUs, how can we be with ourselves and other people in the midst of grief, in a way that is compassionate and helpful? "I've never died before," says Judy in today's drama. "I'm not sure I can do this." So how might her sister Sandy respond in a way that is healing? Or our child asks us, "What happens after we die?" What do we say?

Let's start by going back to Bill Doherty's dialogue with his son. Eric asks his dad what he believes about death, and his dad is hesitant to share any personal beliefs; all he does is affirm the UU commitment to spiritual diversity, and in this way suggests to Eric that what matters is not so much what his dad believes as what HE believes. True enough; but we know how Eric feels about this kind of answer-not helpful. Lame-o. Eric is not going to let his dad get off the hook. He insists on a better answer than the one he's getting. So we have a disconnect here. Bill Doherty is coming from one place, and his son Eric is coming from someplace else. What's going on?

Let's take a closer look at Bill Doherty's hesitation in sharing his personal beliefs with his son. First thing I'll say is this: he's not alone. Consider one of the most famous Unitarians of all time, Thomas Jefferson, who once said, "I inquire after no man's religious opinions, and trouble none with mine"-and he applied this principle so stringently that never once did he speak about such things with his children. This is what they would attest to in later years. Bill Doherty is not the only one.

But what could the underlying reason be? Perhaps it is because, as parents, we might not know what we believe and so feel awkward about that. But let's put this possibility aside for a moment, and explore another one. This: parents afraid that, if they share their personal beliefs with their kids, they will do them spiritual harm. They will bias them against themselves. They will frustrate or distort their personal growth.

This fear is rooted in at least two different kinds of things. One is personal experience. Unitarian Universalist parents who, as children, experienced first-hand religious indoctrination and rote learning that squelched creativity and pushed down all the questions that naturally popped up in their minds. If this ever happened to you, then here is one root of the fear. As for the other root, it's this: a theological assumption about the nature of spiritual growth. It goes something like this: spiritual growth is entirely autonomous in character, and so a child's spiritual sense of himself and the world unfolds spontaneously into completeness, just like an acorn seed unfolds spontaneously into the completeness of an oak tree. This is what the autonomy theory says, and accordingly, what we ought to do as parents is to stand back, be neutral, and provide basic nutrients only: good soil, sufficient water, sufficient sunlight-just stand back and allow the child's spiritual DNA to unfold into the beliefs that are right for him or her. To do more than this-to go beyond neutrality and actively share personal beliefs and preferences-is to risk frustrating the spiritual seed. Our children might go ahead and adopt our beliefs out of love for us, or out of a feeling of dependency, or something else; and they would do this whether or not such beliefs resonated with their own personal DNA. The end result is what I mentioned earlier: children biased against themselves; children's spiritual growth frustrated or distorted. Thus the fear we've been talking about. Thus the hesitation.

Now I will tell you straight out: I think that the autonomy assumption is wrong. I really do. It is, first of all, out of line with a historical doctrine of liberal theology called Arminianism: the idea that human nature is determined neither to do only good or only evil but, rather, is open. The will is free to do evil and good both. And so, the absolutely necessary function of moral and religious education, which teaches the will to love and do what is good and hate what is evil. Arminian theology, in other words, emphasizes the key role of nurture as well as nature in the spiritual growth of people. Both, it says, are essential.

And so does contemporary science, but it does so in a different way. It says that humans are born with an innate capacity for language and for moral and spiritual behavior but then goes on to say that this capacity is but an abstract structure waiting for specific content, waiting to be developed by life in a particular community defined by a particular place, a particular language, and particular practices. The hardware needs software. Again, as with our historical liberal theology, the message is not so much one of autonomy as it is of interdependence. Nature must be met half-way with nurture. Both are required for our children to have healthy spiritual lives.

One image I use to help me envision all this is that of musical talent. The capacity for spiritual growth within a child and within all of us is just like a talent for music. But for this talent to become an actual skill that brings beauty to life-to become something more than an abstract dream-it's got to be met half-way with practice and hard work. There's got to be teachers involved. And there's got to be a focus-a particular musical instrument that's chosen: voice, violin, guitar, tuba, flute. There's no such thing as music in the abstract, and similarly, there's no such thing as religion in the abstract; it always comes in the form of specific traditions and beliefs and rituals and stories and practices. And so, if we withhold these kinds of things from our children-if we try to remain strictly neutral, a mere bystander-we block their religious development. It happens, as surely as refusing to allow our children to sing or to play an instrument blocks their musical development. When we as parents share our beliefs with our children, or when we worship with them or engage in other spiritual practices with them, we are not so much biasing them against themselves as we are giving them words and practices with which to express the abstract spiritual longing that they were born with, the innate spiritual talent that is Life's gift to them. Yes, some of our parents might have gone overboard with this. Some of our parents might have been heavy-handed with this, and we bear the scars. But to go overboard in the opposite direction is equally harmful. We somehow have to find the right kind of balance, the golden mean. One thing is for certain: "We raise our children ourselves, or others will raise them for us" (Bill Doherty). Our children hunger for spiritual leadership, and if they don't get it from us, they are going to get it from somewhere else.

And this is what Bill Doherty's son somehow knew. It's why he wouldn't let his dad off the hook. Here's how the rest of that story goes. Eric insists on a better answer than he's been given, and his dad replies, "O.K. I believe that when we die we live on through other people but not in a heaven." At this, Eric gets silent for a moment, and then he says something that blows his dad out of the water: "I'll believe what you believe for now, and when I grow up I'll make up my own mind." That's what Eric says. And about all this, Bill Doherty writes, "My seven year old was teaching me something here. He was being a developmentally appropriate UU child, and I was not being a developmentally appropriate UU parent. He knew he needed answers, for now, to an important religious question, and he also knew that he could seek his own answers when he was prepared to do so."

I commend the wisdom of Bill Doherty's seven-year-old to all of us. Parents, let your children know what you believe, and frame it in just the way Eric did. Say, "Here is what I think about death, and it's something you can believe for now. When you grow older, you can make up your own mind about it." That's developmentally appropriate. It's what our children need to grow.

Now, if it turns out that you aren't sure what you believe, one thing you can do is tap on this congregation's many resources. For example, our wonderful Director of Religious Education, Pat Kahn, is currently leading a "Parents as Resident Theologians" class, and this is an excellent opportunity for developing yourself theologically. So many learning opportunities available here, to plug into. Above all, though, if you aren't sure what you believe-just be honest with your kids and say, "You know, I'm not sure what I believe." To do this confidently, remembering that we as parents don't have to be all-knowing to be good enough. In fact, if you admit to your kids that you don't know something-and you do it in a way that opens up an opportunity for mutual exploring-their respect for you will only increase. Their trust towards you will only increase. Kids can smell a rat. Kids can sense theological filibustering. So just say you don't know. Admit that you are still searching, still exploring. And most importantly-invite them along for the search. Love the search yourself, and attract them to it through your own personal passion and enthusiasm. There can be no greater gift to our children than this. The blessing will last all of their days.

But now it's time to turn to the other issue I mentioned earlier, which applies to all of us, whether or not we are parents or UUs: how we can be with ourselves and other people in the midst of grief, in a way that is compassionate and helpful. Knowing what to say when death is no longer some abstract possibility but is right there in the room with you. Let's turn to this issue now.

And there is no better example of what to do and to say than a story which Judith Viorst shares in her classic book, Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. A title that's a mouthful and says it all. Here's the story. It's about a five-year-old girl named Jessica and her mother: "Jessica showed her mother the picture she had painted. There were black clouds, dark trees and large red splashes. ‘My,' said her mother. ‘Tell me about this, Jess.' Jessica pointed to the red splashes. ‘That's blood,' she said. ‘And these are clouds.' ‘Oh,' said her mother. ‘See,' said Jessica, ‘the trees are very sad. The clouds are black. They are sad too.' ‘Why are they sad?' asked her mother. ‘They are sad because their Daddy has died,' said Jessica, the tears slowly running down her cheeks. ‘Sad like us since daddy died,' said her mother, and held her closely, and they wept." That's the story-and there's so much wisdom in it.

First of all, there is the wisdom of opening up to grief. Taking the time, like Jessica did, to pull out the colors and paint a grief picture. But this can be so hard to do. We just have a hard time doing this. Somehow there's a cultural message that runs like a tape recording in our heads, saying, "Grief is weakness, grief is self-indulgence, get a grip, get with the program, stay positive, grin and bear it, move on." This is the message we hear in our heads, and it is conveyed so often in the context of our families, times when family members ignore or stop or shame our grief. We hear, "Don't be silly." We hear, "I don't have time for this." We hear, "Go to your room." Family messages conveying the larger cultural message, which is, "We only have happy feelings here. Anyone who is upset is ungrateful." In so many ways, we get the message that we are not supposed to take grief seriously and stay connected to it as it unfolds in our lives, in its own time and way. We try to rise above it stoically, we deny it, we try to bypass it, we try to medicate it away. Anything but listen. So no wonder the colors of our world drain away. No wonder. The grief toxifies and becomes anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, psychic numbing. We become strangers to ourselves, inauthentic, stuck. Our spiritual style becomes obsessive, always grasping for happy moments and staying away from darker, richer, more soulful aspects of our lives. The colors of our world drain away, all because we're living lives that we simply can't bear to show up to.

But five-year-old Jessica shows a better way. She pulls out the colors and paints a picture. The only way beyond sadness and grief is through it. There is no other way. Some parents this morning are painting pictures of sons and daughters gunned down by the recent shootings at Northern Illinois University. Some spouses this morning are painting pictures of their death of their beloved partners. Some people this morning are painting pictures of the death of beloved heroes, like the Rev. James Orange. Some people this morning are like the characters in today's drama, and they are painting pictures of an incurable illness. And we've got to paint these grief pictures. The only way out is through. Pictures that can, at times, show the anger that survivors feel towards those who have died and have left them behind. Pictures that can, at times, show the guilt and regret about things done or not done. So many different kinds of grief pictures, and we've got to take the time to paint them. The only way out is through.

Opening up to grief-that is the first piece of wisdom coming to us from the story of Jessica, and here is the second: when someone shows you their grief picture, say, "Tell me more." That's what Jessica's mom said to Jessica, and we can do that as well. Three little words. "Tell me more."

Listen to what the Rev. Judith E. Meyer says about this, in reference to her experience of mourning her mother's death: "I found that each time I told my story to a sympathetic listener, my heart was a little less heavy. I became accustomed to hearing myself speak of my mother's death. This simple act diminished the sense of unreality, helped me integrate my story into myself." That's what she says, and I treasure these words because they reflect my own experience exactly. When my own mom died, just over a year ago last January, and I got the phone call, I simply cannot describe to you the numbness that fell like a shadow over my world. And what helped to bring me back to life in the face of death's shadow wasn't people saying to me, "It's all for the best." It wasn't people saying to me, "She's in a better place now." It wasn't people trying to distract me from my sadness. It was people saying "Tell me more"; people inviting me to share stories about my mom which led to as much laughter as to tears; people willing to take a look at the grief picture I painted, asking me about why my trees were sad, why my clouds were so very dark. I just didn't need people to have all the answers. I wasn't looking for philosophical theories. And I didn't want someone to take away the pain. The best help, the most compassionate support, came from people who simply helped me show up to my life in a difficult moment, soothing me, strengthening me, so that I could bear what was mine to bear. So I didn't feel so alone.

And that's really it. Not feeling alone in the face of the great Mystery of Death. This is the last piece of wisdom coming from the story of Jessica. "'See,' said Jessica, ‘the trees are very sad. The clouds are black. They are sad too.' ‘Why are they sad?' asked her mother. ‘They are sad because their Daddy has died,' said Jessica, the tears slowly running down her cheeks. ‘Sad like us since daddy died,' said her mother, and held her closely, and they wept." The fact is, no one can feel our grief for us; no one can do the emotional work that is ours to do. But there is tremendous comfort in the feeling that others are there for you; that others cry with you; that others hold you, and you hold them. Tremendous comfort. Judy in today's drama says, "I've never died before. I'm not sure I can do this." And perhaps this is what her sister Sandy could say in response. To say that "I'm here, and I'm with you. In your death, a part of me goes with you. Wherever you go, a part of me goes also." This is what she might say. And it reflects something that, in the face of the Mystery of Death, we dare never forget: the even more powerful Mystery of Love. The Love that never dies. We cannot forget that. "I'm here and I'm with you. In your death, a part of me goes with you. Wherever you go, a part of me goes also." Words of love. This is what we can say, in the valley of the shadow of death. Love lifts up all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Amen.