Death and handling strong feelings

Strong emotions are a natural part of being human.

Our feelings – even negative feelings of distress or pain or anger or sadness – are an important part being a healthy person. Feelings can be difficult to manage, but they are a significant gift. Without feelings we become machines or shadows of ourselves. Our children also have strong feelings – such strong feelings that they can easily be overwhelmed.

But to help our children have healthy emotions when they encounter death, as adults we need to be able to handle our own emotions.

We shouldn’t deny or shut down our feelings, or let our feelings hold us hostage and control us, but we need to recognise what we are feeling, and why. We need to listen to what our feelings tell us about what is important to us, and about what we value.

The grief and pain we feel following the death of someone close is a sign of our deep love and connection – something to continue to treasure.

The anger we feel when death comes to someone young is a sign of our hopes for them, and our faith in their potential to grow. When we have dared to believe in them, the closing of their future is a sharp arrow.

The outrage we feel when life is taken violently or tragically is the stirring of our desire for justice.

In times of death, our children will be watching us. Children look to the adults they love to show them the way through life, to model what to do in tough times and how to handle challenging, confusing and conflicting emotions.

We help them just by letting them watch us ‘do’ grief well. ‘Doing grief’ well doesn’t mean keeping a fake happy face or holding back our tears. It means finding the space to cry, to remember, to talk out our sadness or anger or shock and to be silent – to light a candle or hug or listen to music and feel what words sometimes can’t express.

It means giving our grief its rightful space, so it doesn’t spill out in unhelpful or destructive ways. When we ignore the deep feelings that come from loss, they still find their way out to the surface, and usually in ways that hurt us and those around us. We want our children to learn to live with the realities of death responsibly, positively and safely.

Take some time to think about your reactions to death in the past. This is important to do, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. If this is really painful for you, invite a friend, a family member or counsellor to sit with you.

Beth Barnett

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.