Teaching Death in Sunday School (and other religious and non-religious institutions) by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

Monday, 02 Dec 2013 04:17

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page

(If you are not religious or are atheist, please do not be dissuaded from reading this article by the title:)

We just had a member of our congregation die relatively unexpectedly. He was in his early 50s and a father of 6. (That’s a big equation.)

My religious job is to teach our youth (teenager) Sunday School class, when I am not working in the ER or traveling to lecture. So, in this regard, today was like most other Sundays- I had gotten up early to prepare my lesson for the day. The problem was, the lesson wasn’t relevant for the day…meaning the death of this man was on everyone’s mind, and two of his children were in my class.

I spent most of the morning wrestling with whether to teach the lesson as planned or to toss it out to talk about what would be the elephant in the room.

I chose the latter.

Instead of me standing at the front of the room in front of rows of chairs, I rearranged the room into a circle of seats. The kids all came in and I leaned back in my chair and stretched out my legs. I was a little nervous. In contrast to my “Death Café” and “Ok to Die” lectures, this audience had no idea what they were in for…and this was a very fresh and raw topic. Plus, I had no idea how this was going to go over.

Shortly after the opening prayer and some social chat I announced that I was throwing out my planned lesson and instead we were going to talk about what was on everyone’s mind…A few of the kids appeared to hold their breaths.

“Today, we are going to talk about death and dying,” I paused only briefly, “Now, I am not going to scare you, but we are just going to talk about this out in the open in a very relaxed way. It’s OK to talk about the end of life.”

I continued, “Now I am going to ask you a few very dumb questions…”

By now I had everyone’s attention. I could see their thoughts by the expressions on their faces, “How are we going talk about a taboo topic such as death so casually AND have the teacher start off by asking “dumb” questions?”

I pushed on. “Ok, raise your hand if you have ever had a friend who died?” 50% raised their hands.

“Raise your hand if you have ever had a family member who died?” We all raised our hands.

“Raise your hand if you have ever known anyone who has died?” No hand was down.

“Raise your hand if you have ever died?” A bunch of hands went up and everyone laughed…

Finally, I said,  “Raise your hand if you are not going to die?” A couple of the same jokesters raised their hands and again there was laughter in the room and the kids looked around at each other smiling. The thoughts that were radiating from their faces were, “OK, we might be able to get through this.” (Including the children of our deceased friend).

I began to relax. Hurdle number one overcome, being able to speak of death publically, and no one had left the room yet.

Encouraged, I pressed on, “So now I want to take some time for us to discuss any experience that we have had with the death of someone we’ve known.” And I followed this with excusing the bereaved children from the verbal conversation if they didn’t want to speak, they could simply listen if they wished. My goal of course was to let them know that they are not alone in their experience.

As the teacher, I started with my own experience- the death of a college boyfriend who was killed while drinking and driving. I didn’t hold back. I told them everything from the fear, to the pain, to the confusion, even regrets and guilt. And finally, I told them about the peace that settled in after years.

Then, we just went around the room. Some had very little to share other than, “My grandmother died.” While others talked in more detail about dead loved ones and a few even wept. I verbally applauded them for being open, “See this is an experience we all share and sometimes we feel great and strong feelings for years to come. Death changes us forever. Sometimes it makes us strive to become better people in our daily lives when we see for ourselves that life is finite and it ends.”

Goal number two reached: normalizing the universal experience of death and allowing people to describe it aloud, publically.

Next, I asked another question; “What kinds of things do we feel when someone dies?”

One of the grieving children spoke up first, “Shock. Sadness. Disbelief.”

A cacophony of voices offered other feelings: “Fear!”, “Anger” “Denial” “Numbness” “Hurt”…. (Yes, I know, I’ve got a very smart Sunday School Class!)

“Yes, yes, yes,” I said to them all. “These are all normal reactions.” I went on to tell them a few stories from the ER of how people react when I “announce death”. I have had people grab me and pull me to the floor with them, or attempt to strike me in anger. I have had people say, “No this is not happening and literally walk out of the hospital.” I have had people bargain with me, “No, please doctor try again! Do something else! I will do anything!” I have had people react with everything from guilt (“This is my fault!”) to relief (“I’m glad she isn’t suffering anymore.”). Of course, sometimes people respond with guilt about their sense of relief.

I ended this portion by saying, “Long after everyone else in the room has stopped talking about (this person’s death) and started talking about cars and new iPhones, our friends here (the children of the deceased) will still be feeling these feelings and dealing with healing. We need to remember this and be here for them.”

3rd goal attained:  Affirming the range and time of grief responses- and needed support

Time was running out, so I decided to end the class with one of my favorite challenges: “Imagine that you have only 24 hours to live. What are the most important things you could do?”

This got their imaginations revved up and laughter returned to the room… answers ranged from “Skydiving” to “Calling up a famous rock band and asking to play with them” to “Telling my family I love them” to “Texting people to forgive me.” I was impressed.

The bell rang.

This was the right lesson for today.


Some of the main goals of religion are to give support and guidance as we grapple with the big questions of life and the sure knowledge of death. Religious or not, we all need to find better ways to speak about and support conversations about death, dying and the end of life…for all of our sakes.

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17 thoughts on “Teaching Death in Sunday School (and other religious and non-religious institutions) by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

  1. Kris Murphy

    I have to applaud Monica for following through on her feeling to shift the lesson to a discussion of death….not life and death, just death. When she told me before, I was a bit concerned, because two of the teens in her class were the sons of our friend who passed. As Monica was leading this discussion I was watching carefully for their reaction and wanted to make sure they were not being adversely effected. While this was a bit of a sad discussion, mixed in with some laughter, in the end, I believe Monica was correct in feeling it was appropriate.

    The only problem with a discussion about dying and death, is that all too often, they only take place AFTER THE FACT.

    In a way we inoculate ourselves from the shock and extreme grief that usually accompanies the passing of a family member or friend, if we but have “the talk” before it occurs. And as 10% of the population finds out, that can occur in an instant, very unexpectedly.

  2. Rea

    A portrait of Sunday School class the way it ought to be taught – according to the pressing needs of the children, not “by the book.” After a class like this, the kids might be better prepared than their parents to deal with bereavement. Certainly they are now better prepared to deal with the 2 classmates who experienced the loss of father. (A lesson in empathy?) And it affirms the normality of feelings for the 2 bereaved children. Openness. It’s the only way to continued health and growth. — Death changes us permanently. It is wrong to suggest otherwise. It is right to feel the feelings and allow the support of others. It is right to exercise compassion. Yes, it can be taught…and the sooner, the better. Yes, grownups have feelings, too, and not so very different from children’s feelings! Yes, when we are freed to speak, we discover ourselves in one another. And yes, that is a comfort and a joy. Is that not part of what begins to give life energy and meaning?

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      I think that I needed you as the guest teacher for the adult Sunday School Class! Such wisdom…

      1. Martin

        I read this as I prepared my own Sunday school class on death, also following the death of a beloved member of our church family. It formed the opening of my time with the children and I was happy that if I got no further it would be enough. I also looked at the hope held out in Christ (from 2 Corinthians 5) for the believer, so if other Sunday school leaders are looking for a bible passage to go with this topic, then I hope that this is a helpful comment.

        Thank you for the sensitive advice and sharing your experiences.

  3. Pingback: Shared via Grief Healing – Teaching Death in Sunday School (and other religious and non-religious institutions) by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD | It’s OK to Die | Loss, Grief, Transitions and Relationship Support

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  5. Julie Saeger Nierenberg

    Great post! I applaud your ability to be “in the moment” for and with all concerned.

    My junior high school religious youth group had some pretty astute leaders. They proactively arranged for us to visit a cemetery (at night), to be introduced to the inner workings of an undertaker’s domain, and to begin a conversation about the End of Life. I don’t remember all of the points we discussed but I’ve always been impressed that we “went there” as a group in our discussion and experience, however limited those may have been. I didn’t make the connection back then to our youth group activities, but I (and we) had various deaths happening in close proximity: a classmate’s suicide and my grandmother’s death from natural causes, both within the same school year. It was very good to know that grownups were okay with discussing death and grief as normal and inevitable consequences of living.

    Keep up the good work, Dr. Monica! And thank you for reminding all of us to be this kind of presence in others’ lives.

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      Wow, Julie! That was very interesting exposure for a teenager…I’m very impressed. This type of thing needs to be more common and we need to be modeling this kind of behavior for others. Thanks for your thoughts sharing such an important example.

  6. Pingback: Teaching Death in Sunday School (and other religious and non-religious institutions) by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD | It’s OK to Die | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

  7. Irisq

    Bless you Monica … you invited us into your classroom and we got to drink from the same well!
    Very rich and so grateful that you chose to share this.
    I was just noticing this morning after another sudden and tragic death of someone in
    Hollywood — that they are given the limelight — the shocking details for about a week —
    and then they inevitably fade away from being “news” — but the trauma of grief
    goes on for many years and only by God’s grace does true healing begin.

    I may have mentioned before people I know who lost their son in Afghanistan from a freak
    stray bullet that pierced him between the gap of his bullet proof vest. He was 22 and very
    dashing — one of only 2 sons. Their grief and anger at God was seemingly a bottomless pit
    of anguish for over 2 years but in the 3rd year or so — they somehow came out on the other
    side and felt called to teach — of all things — a group called GRIEF SHARE — and boy
    are they a true blessing!
    Keep on!

  8. Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs

    Dr. Williams-Murphy,
    I am eager to open a death cafe…but hesitant to do so without any prior dialogue with someone who has done so already…tips, hints, suggestions, guidance, pitfalls to avoid, etc.

    Might I impose on you for some direction???

    Thank you,

    P.S. Sometime ago I shared my story….I have M.S. and as a paraplegic, at some point of needing a respirator and pacemaker – I said no and just wanted AND (allow natural death)…and as the Drs. alerted me I could die within minutes…I stood my ground. And I have been STANDING it for many years – much to their surprise! Shortly after – I had a spontaneous remission….. :)

  9. Merilynne Rush

    Monica, the piece about teaching death in Sunday school is amazing. I want to be in your class! One of the biggest hurdles I face in death education is from my own spiritual community – a mainstream church. Why, oh, why do we fail each other in this regard? The same fear that pervades our society should be talked about in our religious congregations. But it’s not – maybe that’s why I host a Death Cafe!
    Let’s take Death Cafe to church!

    Thank you for your inspirational writing and sharing with us all.

  10. Robert Jones

    There is a book which greatly helps people learn how to “stop judging and evaluating ourselves altogether. To stop trying to label ourselves as good or bad, and simply accept ourselves with an open heart. To treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter”

    The book title is “Self Compassion” by author Kristen Neff Ph. D.. Published in year 2011.

    Christ says “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Self Compassion is the only book I know of that greatly clarifies loving yourself in terms of what that means in major areas of our lives. The result of reading it will be a life– self filled with more love resulting in— more love to give.

    See and hear the author at I believe we can become better lovers (more like God) by studying self compassion. We can also die more gracefully, and heal more quickly from the effects of death. I encourage you to try.


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