When I am frightened, will you reassure me?   

When I’m uncertain, will you hold my hand?

Will you be strong for me, sing to me quietly?

Will you share some of your stories with me?


When a parent or spouse or partner is soon to die, or has died…. 

When it is a child or a sibling or a friend or a hero….

When it is our own death we are contemplating…. 

In all such times, oh, we need reassurance, someone to hold our hands, to sing quietly, to share stories….

But what do you say? How do you say it? 

Of course, a lot depends on the particular situation you might be in. Take this one, which comes from Dr. Bill Doherty, Director of the Marriage and Family Program at the University of Minnesota. “It was 1980,” he says, “and I had been a Unitarian Universalist 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?’” 

That’s the story. Eric asks his dad what he believes, and his dad is hesitant to share anything personal; he wants his son to step onto the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” path and come up with his own answer. And his son is not buying it for one second. Eric wants to know what his dad believes because he feels he needs to. It’s important for him.

We have a disconnect here. Bill Doherty is coming from one place, and Eric is coming from someplace else. 

How many of you can sympathize with Bill Doherty’s situation–whether or not you have ever been some kind of caretaker of children? Death can be tough for Unitarian Universalist parents and caretakers to talk about because we want to be “good UUs” and step back from imposing our personal beliefs on our children; we want them to discover their own authentic truth, just as we want this for ourselves. 

What’s for sure is that Bill Doherty’s hesitation is not strange. Consider one of the most famous Unitarians of all time, Thomas Jefferson from way back when—author of no less than the Declaration of Independence—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 share his religious opinions with his children. His children were on their own. 

Bill Doherty is not the only one. 

But what could the underlying reason be? A big one one is this: parents afraid that, if they share their personal beliefs with their kids–even their confusion, even their not-knowing–they will do their kids spiritual harm. They will bias their kids against themselves. They will frustrate or distort their authentic personal growth. 

This concern is rooted in at least two things. One is personal experience. Unitarian Universalist parents who, as children, experienced religious indoctrination and rote learning first-hand, which 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 understandable source of the concern. 

As for the other source, it’s this: a full-blown theological assumption about the nature of spiritual growth. That assumption goes something like this: spiritual growth happens in a way very similar to how an acorn seed grows: its DNA pattern is complete from the beginning and what is needed above all is non-interference from the environment so that the DNA pattern can be fully realized. Call this the theology of spiritual individualism. According to it, what we ought to do as caregivers is 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 them. To do more than this—to go beyond neutrality and actively share personal beliefs and preferences—is to risk frustrating the spiritual seed. The end result is what I mentioned earlier: children biased against themselves; children’s spiritual growth frustrated or distorted. 

Thus the concern we’ve been talking about. Thus the hesitation. 

Is the theology of spiritual individualism something you assume too? 

As for myself, I’ll tell you straight out: I think that the spiritual individualism assumption is wrong. I really do. It is, first of all, out of line with a historical doctrine of our liberal ancestors called “Arminianism”: the idea that human nature is open, and people potentially can act in both helpful and harmful ways. There is no spiritual DNA from the start that hardwires a person to grow in purely good ways. The will is free and not fated, not determined. Therefore, said our ancestors the Arminians, moral and religious education is absolutely necessary, because it teaches people to love and do what is good and hate what is evil. Arminian theology, in other words, emphasizes the key role of both nature AND nurture. Not one or the other, but both/and.

Contemporary science says the same thing—but 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 experience 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 individualism 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. There’s also got to be a focus: 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 actually block their religious development. They starve right before our eyes. It happens, as surely as refusing to allow our children to sing or to play an instrument would block their musical development. 

When adults (parents or caretakers or RE teachers alike) share their beliefs with 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 indeed born with. Life’s gift to them is innate spiritual talent, and now this talent needs to be developed. Yes, when some of us were children, our parents or other adults might have gone overboard 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. 

One thing is for certain: We raise our children ourselves, or others will raise them for us. 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. Adults, let the children in your lives know what you believe. Frame it like this: 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. 



When I am frightened, will you reassure me? 

When I’m uncertain, will you hold my hand?

Will you be strong for me, sing to me quietly?

Will you share some of your stories with me?

Just a moment ago we explored the situation of educating children about matters of death–some of the complexities surrounding that. But now we explore a different situation: the emotionally overwhelming quality of it, whatever your age happens to be. Faced with the mystery of death, we can feel so inadequate, so awkward. Deep and difficult emotions overtake us like a tidal wave. Often we may say nothing; our tongues become like lead in our mouths. Other times, anxiety loosens our tongues and we find ourselves overflowing—but in ways that may be less than helpful.

“I’ve never died before,” says your best friend who is fighting cancer. “I’m not sure I can do this,” they say.



How can we be with ourselves and other people in the overwhelming tide of grief, in a way that is compassionate and helpful? 

There is no better example of what to do and what 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. The title is a mouthful and says it all. Here’s the story: 

[Five-year-old 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 she held Jessica 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 broken record in our heads, and it unconsciously biases us against ourselves, It says, “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 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. 

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 and we find ourselves grasping for happy moments and staying away from the challenging yet more soulful aspects of our lives. 

The colors of our world drain away, 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 people this morning are painting pictures of the death of a beloved friend, and they are lost at sea. Some people this morning are painting pictures of the death of a beloved hero—some famous personality that served to anchor them in their generation and cultural time, and with their passing, they are lost at sea. 

These losses and so many others–all the grief paintings being painted this morning–how to count the various and many ways? 

But here we are. 

And we’ve got to paint these grief pictures. 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, about 15 years ago, 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” and inviting me to share stories about my mom which led to as much laughter as to tears. It was 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, what the blood was all about. I just didn’t need people to have all the answers. I really 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. 

That’s really the ideal: not feeling so alone in the face of the great Mystery of Death. 

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. 

Someone who is fighting cancer, or some other illness, says to you, “I’ve never died before.” “I’m not sure I can do this,” they say. And perhaps this is what you might 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. I love you.” 

This is what you might say. And it reflects something that, in the face of the Mystery of Death, we dare never forget: the even more powerful is the 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.