Death and religion – a story

In 2008, a mother at our local primary school drugged and suffocated her two children, before attempting to take her own life. This rocked our school community. In fact, it rocked our city, as media vans and journalists crammed our local school street. The boys were in grades 2 and 4, and the mother was a vibrant, energetic and well-known volunteer among the parent groups. No one had seen this coming. We were all blindsided.

This is the kind of event that we all hope will never happen, but which, when it does occur, we cannot hide from. Every child, every family, every staff member felt the impact in some way.

The school held a memorial service for the boys in the school grounds. It was for all students and staff, and was open to parents but closed to media and the public. There were speeches, music and many tears, and balloons were released into the air.

Australian government schools are decidedly secular places. Religious education is optional and taught by volunteers. Yet in this moment of grief, both Baha’i and Christian religious education volunteer teachers spoke to the school. The Baha’i teacher read beautiful passages of wisdom from their sacred writings, and the Christian teacher spoke of Jesus’ own tears and sadness at the loss of his friend – and God’s nearness to us in grief.

While many of the children, staff and parents who attended that day would not identify personally with either the Baha’i or Christian traditions, these faith expressions were important parts of acknowledging the whole of humanness. Death takes us beyond what is known, into a space that is filled with mystery.

Religious symbols and stories remind us that we don’t need to have answers for everything: that humans can live, in fact thrive, with a sense of mystery.

As much as there is a time for straight, practical talk about death with children, in the midst of our heartaches and sorrows, we owe it to them to allow the comfort of wonder, of symbols, of lighting a candle or of whispering a word of prayer. Children, as much as adults,  need time and space and words and actions that tend their spirits – the deep places of their beings where love grows, hurts and heals.

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.

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