An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
How do we talk to children (or heck, even other adults) about death when our beliefs about it are more open-ended?
Those of us who are “spiritual but not religious” or practice non-dogmatic religions may long to express something when a loved one dies that goes beyond what is happening on the biological level, something we feel intensely on the inside, but is hard to put into words without codified beliefs and symbology such as “going to heaven”.
How do you navigate that?
The first thing that I thought of when contemplating your question is all of the ridiculous outrage around Starbucks holiday cups. I realize that’s not what you’re asking about, but I think it’s related. Just like there are basic, non-denominational things we can say to people to express care and well wishes during the winter holiday season that leave space for all belief systems, there are ways we can offer sincere condolences to someone when a loved one dies that can offer comfort without being denominational or dogmatic.
You can say to someone something like, “I’m so sorry for your pain. They will always be with you, even if it doesn’t feel like that right now.” That statement holds space both for the person who believes that someone being “with you” means they are in heaven and looking down upon their loved ones, and the person who simply believes that we carry our beloved dead with us in our memories, in the ways in which they affected us, and in our actual bodies, assuming we share DNA.
It’s sad to me that we have become so isolated from difference in our lives and communities that we have lost the language to be with each other in joy and sorrow as human beings, no matter what our beliefs may be. We hold our beliefs so tightly, as if they might run away from us, leaving so little space for breath or questions or learning or love.
There are people that will be intensely offended at the thought of anyone discussing death in a way that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. I’m guessing those folks aren’t going to be reading this column, so I’m not too worried about them getting pissed off at me. But if you are trying to talk to someone you care about who has that kind of a stranglehold on their beliefs who has lost someone, I think you need to think long and hard about what is more important to you — protecting your own right to express a more ephemeral belief system or connecting to them and offering comfort, one human to another.
Personally, I don’t think that when someone else is grieving is the time to assert your own beliefs about death. I think meeting people where they are and speaking their language when they are suffering is a compassionate, loving thing to do. I don’t think anyone is keeping a great universal tally sheet, as much as I love The Good Place, and taking points away of your lifetime total if you tell your Grandma that Grandpa will be waiting for her in heaven when she dies, even if you don’t actually believe that. That moment is about the love and connection between the two of you, here and now. It is about her, and her pain. Wherever or whatever Grandpa is or isn’t now that he’s gone, I don’t think he’s gonna be terribly fussed about it. I certainly think the Divine has bigger things to deal with.
If you really can’t countenance using language to comfort someone in their grief that doesn’t conform to your own beliefs, then refer back to paragraph #2. Say something open-ended and leave it at that. You get points for that in my book, especially if you manage to do it with love.
Generally, when discussing matters of religion and spirituality, I always try to focus on the universal human feeling or experience that is at the heart of what is being said. I’m in a community choir. Our repertoire is entirely spirituals and gospel, which is music deeply embedded in the Christian tradition. I grew up with Christian parents, and very Christian grandparents. I am religious, myself, but tend towards a more universalist perspective. If I am Christian at all, it is in the very loosest sense of the word. Like, Jesus Christ seemed like a super smart, wise guy. Also, super politically radical for his time. I’m a fan, so to speak. But is he my personal lord and savior? Not so much.
Still, I have had people after watching me perform ask me whether or not I’ve been saved. What I tell them is that I don’t have to be “saved”, per se, to find appeals to a father god for comfort and a release from earthly suffering deeply moving. I know what it is to be laid low by life, and to reach out for something greater than myself to hold me and carry me. Just because my experience of the Divine is much vaster than what I would call the “father archetype” doesn’t mean the Father isn’t in there, or that I don’t know the yearning for a father’s guidance or succor. That is a universal human feeling, which transcends language. So, I’ll use whatever language you want about it. The words are not the important piece for my heart, or my sense of connection to the human family.
If you’re talking to kids about death, then I’m going to loop back around to the holidays and talk about Santa Claus. My kids persisted in their belief in Santa Claus much longer than most people might consider reasonable, and their dad and I encouraged that in them. We never put the presents under the tree until after they were in bed Christmas Eve. We snuck outside in the dark, freezing cold and shook sleigh bells under their bedroom window until well past the age when they could reasonably stay home alone.
Why? Because being human is often dark, and painful. I believe a sense of magic and wonder is an antidote to a life that can often invite despair. The longer I could help preserve their sense of magic and wonder the stronger those psychic muscles are going to be when life comes along and kicks them in the teeth.
If discussions of death tend towards the mystical or magical, especially with children, I am not one to quibble. If the ideas help them hold their love and sorrow at the same time, I’m good with that.
All mythologies, and make no mistake, every religion is a mythology, are human attempts to put words to the experience of being human. And some of those experiences involve confronting forces and feelings that are much bigger than our finite selves. Death is bigger and more inexorable than any of us. It comes for every living creature, and none of us knows when it will come for us or what happens after we die. We construct ideas, put words to what we sense or hope, but none of those words can truly hold that vast unknowing.
Which does not mean those words can’t hold some ring of Truth, with a capital “T”, as my mother used to say. But the ring is not the bell, it’s just the lingering echo as it strikes hard against our soul.
After my father’s death I wrote these words in his eulogy:
When my father died the world lost a particular rendition of a principled, striving seeker. A man who was perfect, and enormous in his imperfection. A man who loved deeply and long, and will be loved deeply and long in return. But I do not, for myself, believe that all that he was is lost. He will return, as we all do, to the vast ocean of Spirit, and whatever wisdom he accrued will live on in we who loved him and those who are apportioned some piece of his Light to carry forward. No piece of matter ever dies, it just changes form. And my father, as big as he was, will live on in infinite forms forever.
That is what I believe about death, because it gives me comfort, because it puts, admittedly meager, words to the vastness of the experience of loving and losing my dear ones, and to the connection I sense between all people. It is what I told the people who came to celebrate my father’s life, and it is what I told my kids. But it is not a thing I “know” in a rational sense, because rationality can not encompass all of the feelings, nor all of my knowing.
How anyone else puts words to what or where my father is now that his body is dead doesn’t change my experience or knowing, though it can influence the words that I use to communicate that knowing. I told my kids what I believe, but what they believe, what finite words ring true for them when Death reverberates inexorably against their soul, is for them to decide.
If you’re going to talk to other people about death, I think the first thing to do is ask them for their words. Really listen to what feelings and knowing live underneath their words. Is it fear and torment? Is it wonder? Relief? Connection? Celebration? Offer to them the best words you can find to describe your sense of the indescribable, remembering always that’s only ever what you are doing. Sit with the Mystery together. Let it ring through the words.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at email@example.com. Let’s walk each other home.