[Editor's note: World AIDS Day is December 1.]
This painting was a gift from a man I barely knew, but the beauty of the real gift he gave me cannot be captured with a photograph.
In 2000, during a worship service I was leading, a man I had never seen before approached the pulpit during our joys and concerns. The man lit a candle and said, “My name is Steve. You don’t know me, but I have HIV/AIDS and I am dying. This is my first time in your church. I have come today to ask if you will form a care team for me.”
Proceeding with the rest of the service was difficult. At the time, Steve’s announcement caused me distress. In time, I would come to value it as a great gift. People did talk to Steve after the service and soon the church was seeking volunteers for Steve’s care team.
As a non-driver with spreadsheet skills, I decided I could be of most use as a coordinator. From my home, I assigned volunteers into teams: food, sitting, errand-running. I made emergency calls when volunteers could not fulfill their duty. I even made the occasional meal and asked for rides to deliver them. When Steve was up to it, I visited with my ten year-old daughter. We talked about death and what one’s life can be like when one has the opportunity to make choices about how one will leave it. Aside from creating the opportunity to have these talks, the care team kept me busy at a time when it would have been easy for me to be depressed. It helped me keep life in perspective. What is the end of a marriage compared with the end of life? Was I in right relationship enough with everyone in my life so that I would be at peace when my time came?
After several months, Steve died. After his death, his partner gave me the painting Steve had left for me. It is modeled after Matisse’s "Vase of Sunflowers." Unlike Matisse’s, Steve’s sunflowers appear to me to be dying… but their seeds cover the space beneath the drooping blooms. It is a reminder to me that though we all will die, the seeds we plant may live on.
When the opportunity to discuss death with a child occurs, these resources might be useful:
New York Life Insurance has a guide on helping children dealing with grief after a death. You can order a copy of After a Loved One Dies or download it free. Additional resources are available online.
Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011) and Straight Talk About Death with Teenagers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993) are helpful books by Earl A. Grollman.
Some of the UUA's Tapestry of Faith curricula have sessions on death. In Riddle and Mystery, for middle school-age children, Session 6, Thinking of Death offers activities related to UU memorial services. Search Tapestry of Faith for more stories, activities, and readings.