A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Talking with Children about Death

One of the hardest pieces of my job, supporting families when someone is at the end of life, is when I get the question “What do I say to my children?” This seems to be one of the hardest aspects of death for me because we want to protect children and not let them feel the pain and grief associated with death. This is especially difficult now that my children are becoming so aware of their surroundings and ask a million questions! I can only imagine the weight of having to talk with children about the death of a family member.

 

In my time in hospitals I have found that Child Life Specialists are amazing. Child Life Specialist are part of the health care team and their main role is to help children understand their own illnesses, hospitalization or disability. When there is a death in the hospital, Child Life Specialists can also be called upon to help explain death to young children involved. They also offer resources to the family for grief counseling and tips for how to continue the conversation about grief after the family leaves the hospital. If you are ever in this circumstance, I highly recommend having your nurse get in touch with the Child Life Specialist at the hospital.

After you leave the hospital, or if you are in another setting where you need to talk about death and grief with a child, I’ll offer a few words of advice. Keep things clear, simple and age appropriate. Easier said than done, but focus on the simple facts. Someone was sick, the doctors did all they could and now this person has died. Using the words death and died are clear and simple. With kids, don’t use metaphors for death such as passed on, went peacefully in their sleep, crossed over, or “lost” their battle. These phrases add confusion and can frighten children when they go to sleep or loose at something.[1]  You also don’t have to divulge all of the details, especially if kids are not asking about the details. If the death is a result of suicide or addiction or if someone died on the operating room table, these details may not be appropriate for every child. 

 

Another important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be strong and hide your feelings. In fact, showing your emotions gives children the freedom to show their emotions too. If they see no one crying then they will not feel the permission to cry. Telling a child to be strong takes it one step further and suggests that crying means they are weak. Someone has died, it is sad, and tears are a result of this sadness. It’s okay to cry. In your discussions with children about death be sure to acknowledge the range of emotions they may feel and that all of them are okay. A child may be mad that their dad has died and now can’t be there for Halloween or their birthday. Or they may be critical of situations that are funny and full of laughter because they miss their mom. “You can help children (and yourself) by letting them know that all of their thoughts and feelings are okay.”[2]

 

Finally, let kids know that they can always come to you with further questions. Saying something as simple as “I’m here for you and I love you. If you have other questions or want to talk about his/her death, I’m always ready to talk.” And be prepared for kids to take you up on it. In my few experiences in talking with kids, they had questions just a few minutes after we “finished” talking about it. And don’t be shocked if you have to repeat the same thing several times. It’s no different that reminding kids 10 times to put on their shoes or brush their teeth, kids grow and thrive with repetition. I’m not saying you have to talk about death at every meal, but be prepared to tell the same story or explanation several times.

 

There are lots of great resources available for helping families talk about death and grief with kids. One of them is Sesame Street Greif https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/grief/ This website is full of videos, parent tips and worksheets for kids to express themselves. Another great resources is the Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. (www.dougy.org) This website offers tip sheets for talking with kids in a variety of age groups, as well as support groups and grief materials. It can be hard to help another family member or child walk through their grief when you are also grieving. Don’t be afraid to reach out for additional support from family counselors, school counselors or a pastor. When someone in a family dies, everyone is affected.


[1] The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. Tips for Supporting Grieving Children https://www.dougy.org/docs/TDC_Tips_for_Supporting_Grieving_Children_2018.pdf

[2] Ibid.

A Message from our Covenanted Partner in Ministry, Rev. Gretchen Martin

Complex Grief Associated with Death by Addiction

 

I know this is a heavy title, but I want to spend this article talking about the very real and unfortunately, very common type of grief. In my line of work, in hospitals working with families whose loved one is at the end of life, death by overdose or addiction happens every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 1,177 overdose deaths in Wisconsin in 2017; that’s over 3 deaths every day. These deaths are from synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription opioids like pain pills.[1] Grief associated with death by overdose is unique, given the complexity of the grief and the seemingly inconsistent emotions families hold all at once. There is added complexity to this grief when people feel the death was somehow preventable. I want to take some time and walk through the variety of emotions people may feel when they are grieving death by overdose.[2]

 

Guilt is the feeling of having committed an offense or failed in an obligation. Guilt can arise for folks grieving death by overdose when they feel they could have or should have done something to prevent the death. For example, family members might say “Should I have given him gas money when I knew he would spend it on drugs? Did I somehow cause his death?” Or “I showed her tough love by kicking her out; if I had let her say, I could have helped her when she overdosed.” If you are talking with someone struggling with this, reassure the one grieving that the death is not their fault.

 

Relief is the feeling of reassurance or relaxation following release form anxiety or distress. It is natural to feel a sense of relief when pain or suffering ends. Think about it for yourself – the sense of relief you feel when that headache goes away, or when exams or the big presentation for work is over. No one who has an addict in their family wants their loved one to die. They have always hoped for the addiction to end, praying it would be through recovery, not in death. But, in the face of death by overdose, the addict’s and the family’s suffering has ended. A mother won’t have to worry any longer when the phone rings late at night. A spouse won’t have to worry about shielding the children from the addict’s behaviors. This feeling of relief in no way diminishes the love for the addict or the sense of loss and grief.

 

Shame is the feeling of bringing disgrace or regret, and it is an emotion that is based on what others think of you. Shame around death by overdose comes with the thought that you believe others think it is your fault for having a family member who is an addict. The feeling of shame can also arise if there is a perception that you enabled the addict. Those grieving may think others will judge them for not doing enough to help the addict get clean and sober. Because of this shame, family members may be reluctant to share the circumstances of the death or feel less worthy of mourning. Addiction likely touches every family in some form; don’t let the one grieving feel shame. Reassure the surviving family that you love them, support them and that you can only imagine how hard this death and grief must be.

 

Fear is to be afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful or threatening. Those grieving death by overdose will likely have a sense of fear and anxiety in the wake of the death. They may wonder “Will others start using, relapse or die of an overdose?” Surviving family members may find themselves trying to control every situation as to not allow anyone else to die or be hurt. You can imagine how fixated someone could get trying to protect others and not address their own grief.

 


 

Stigma and Isolation Stigma is a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person. There may be a reluctance for those grieving to openly discuss the cause of death due to stigma around drug abuse and addiction. Surviving family members may be hesitant to share out of fear of what others may think, or they may want people to remember the deceased as happy, loving, athletic, smart… not as an addict. Unfortunately, this often leads to isolation, as those grieving don’t fully disclose the cause of death, don’t open up about the variety of grief they are feeling, and often limit their grieving.

 

If you find yourself in a situation where someone opens up about their grief surrounding death by overdose, please recognize it as a sacred moment. Remember the Not Top 10 and the Top 10… they apply for this type of grief too. If the person grieving begins to share the variety of emotions they are feeling, reassure them that one emotion does not detract from the others. You can be sad about the death and, at the same time, feel relief that the pain and stress associated with addiction has ended. You can feel relief and, at the same time, wonder if there were things you could have done to prevent the death. Emotions around death by overdose aren’t mutually exclusive.

 

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On a totally different note… I would like to ask for prayers as I prepare for a mission trip in June. I will be joining Ardmore Baptist Church and my husband, Rev. Dane Martin on a week-long mission trip serving a community of Haitian refugees in the Bahamas. Haiti holds a special place in my heart, as that is where I first heard (or first listened to) God’s calling on my life. I am excited to minister to the Haitian people in this new context. Thank you for your prayers.


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Overview of the Drug Overdose Epidemic, www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data

[2] What’s Your Grief; The Grief of an Overdose Death: Part 1, https://whatsyourgrief.com/the-grief-of-an-overdose-death

Living the Resurrection

“It’s too early…” was the refrain that I heard preached last week in a sermon by pastor of Trinity UCC, Chicago, the Rev. Otis Moss III. He was speaking about the myriad challenges of life both in and outside of the church, reminding us in this Easter season that our faith tells us that it’s always too early to throw in the towel, to become overwhelmed, to stop trusting in what God is still about to do in our midst. My heart hummed with a resonance of what I’ve come to trust as “church” when he described “the sisters rising early in the morning to bring spices to the place of death, to change the aroma and the atmosphere of loss and grief.” Of course, the message of Easter is that their intent to go and worship in that very place of grief allowed them to encounter the proclamation of new life that was beyond their imagining. To be a people of the resurrection is to live out that proclamation daily.

Our church family has been pondering what it means to grieve the imminent retirement of our church secretary of 27 years. There is nothing but celebration for Diane as she embarks on this new adventure and chapter in her life. And as church, we hold nothing but gratitude for the amazing ways that Diane touched and supported our lives individually and as a church. But change always brings a level of anxiety and grief. Into the goodbyes we also proclaim that resurrection affirmation that we are always the servants who carry those fragrant spices into the next chapter – for Diane, and for us.

Next week we will be welcoming our new office manager and celebrating what God is continuing to do in our midst. The search process felt like an amazing affirmation of the hope that we’re called to live out. We received nearly 90 applications, almost all of them were wonderful, and many exceptional. The personnel committee was impressed by the 14 initial interviews, and four follow-ups that left us feeling like we were experiencing the abundant blessings of God. The discernment process was difficult because of the quality of the candidates. We are pleased to introduce Robin Mock as our new office manager. Robin has spent the past nineteen years employed at institutions of higher learning, most recently as the administrative assistant for the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Marian University in Fond du Lac. For eighteen years she served Lakeland University in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, as the assistant to the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, and as advancement administrative coordinator and marketing coordinator. She comes with a wealth of experience combined with great enthusiasm to come and be a part of the ministry team at Peace Church. Her first day of work will be May 28th. She’ll have a few initial days to overlap with Diane and to begin to find her way around. By June 3rd she’ll be the person that we’ll most likely hear on the phone or encounter in the office. But you shouldn’t be surprised to still encounter Diane here and there. Diane will continue to help orient Robin as needed, as a “special consultant” who has deeply loved her ministry for 27 years.

Like those women early in the morning, we know that we will all be journeying through emotions of grief and celebration in the midst of change. For we know that we are a resurrection people with whom God walks and inspires with new blessings.

We thank Diane from the depths of our souls! She will always be a part of our church family.

We welcome Robin! It is wonderful to invite her into a family that is eager to cherish her gifts.

May God bless each of us on the journey!!

And then there was Holy Week

Within my life of ministry, Lent always seems to pick up speed as it moves along. Suddenly we are in the rich tradition of Holy Week and wrestling with the dynamics of life and death, justice and grace. We began our Lenten journey with those words that remind us of our mortality: “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return…” We are constantly invited to make our peace with death and dying and then to live life to its fullest as the blessing intended by God.

Central to the peace that we are invited to hold within our hearts is the promise of God’s love that never ends. Our Easter proclamation embodies the power of love. I think that proclamation took on a very different character when I focused less on the language of a father sacrificing his son and started hearing the language of self-sacrifice – servant language. The ancient hymn that we encounter in the letter to the Philippians speaks so beautifully to a very different theology than that of a Father sacrificing his son (an act that has always sounded like it erred too close to abuse). That hymn proclaims: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.(Philippians 2:5–8, CEB) The idea of God choosing to journey with us through suffering and death feels very different than offering your child for sacrifice. That solidarity becomes the antidote to a world that continues to be addicted to the myth of redemptive violence. God proclaims that the violence of the world cannot win – rather, servanthood, self-sacrificial love, this is the power that saves us.

At the center of this idea is a very early doctrine of the church, the incarnation. Rev. Holly Whitcomb in her new book “The Practice of Finding” writes about the incarnation in a provocative passage titled “say Yes to being vulnerable as God is vulnerable”. She references writer Melissa Tidwell who elaborates: “It is staggering to consider God's willingness to accept – or even God's desire to experience – a human form, living in a body like ours. It opens us up to marvel at the idea of a perfect, eternal God becoming perishable, harmable, capable of grief and pain, and finally, death.”  Holly continues: “Most of us struggle with vulnerability. In our work or our personal lives we may be seduced by images of our virtue and personal power, thinking these will win us accolades or personal agency. But of course, we all know on a deep level that it is in fact not our perfection but our humanness and our vulnerability that are the bridges to other people. […] God became human in the incarnation, and we become human when we are open and vulnerable and less than perfect.”

The journey of faith is one that continually leads us to understand the power of a servant’s heart. The Roman Empire thought that death on a cross would serve its purposes. It thought that the death of Jesus and any other rabble-rouser or revolutionary would save the empire in somewhat the same way that Temple culture thought that animal sacrifice would save the people of faith. The Psalmist and the Prophets often voice that God doesn’t merely want the sacrifice; he wants changed hearts. God becoming human in Jesus shifts our understanding of power yet again. The vulnerable becomes the victor, love triumphs over violence, sacrifice to God is abolished through sacrifice by God. Love wins.

           And it is the power of that witness that has us proclaim: Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!!!