This blog was originally published in February, 2016. Since its publication, we have laid to rest my beloved grandmother, both of my fathers-in-law, and most recently my father—my best friend—this past October (2022), after a long and very difficult struggle with prostate cancer. The experience of loss to a long and difficult illness has led to some revision, but in large part the post is the same. I am more convinced today than before of the importance of formality (liturgy) in funeral practices for the sake of both the grieving and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord, and in the understanding that the most important grief ministry occurs prior to the experience of grief.
I pray that you might find some comfort in this first offering of a two-part series of posts on grief and ministry to the grieving.
There are many sacred moments in ministry—many moments in which a minister, whether professional or lay, stands on holy ground and mediates God’s gracious care to his people. To stand at the bedside of a fellow Christian as they struggle with illness, to stand before a congregation and a man and woman as they make sacred promises of faithfulness to one another—this is to stand in the presence of God. There is, to my mind, no more sacred place than that occupied by a person in grief. During this time, we should be cautious with our words and actions, remembering that the struggle taking place before us is that of Jacob—it is a wrestling with God.
So, ministry to the grieving is in some ways peculiarly difficult and thus often poorly done. It is my hope in this post to lay out a few suggestions for ways in which the church might engage with those in her midst who are experiencing and living with grief. I am neither a counselor nor the son of a counselor, but I believe that these suggestions will help churches who seek to offer hope and comfort to those who face life’s most difficult and terrible tragedy: death. I begin with a bit of background, my own story.
I’m not sure when Jennifer caught the illness that took her life. It’s so very hard to remember. Regardless, the night of June 13th, 2000, Jennifer went to bed with a terrible headache. It was the first time in two years that I’d seen her take something for a headache. I remember being mildly concerned. She woke with our daughter Madison around 7:30 on the morning of the 14th, and I got up then as well to make my daily coffee. Normally, I would have a cup or two and then stroll back in to watch my wife and daughter sleep. There was something so very beautiful about that. This morning, however, I decided not to wake them, so I didn’t go in. I remember hearing something that sounded like someone yelling for me, but it didn’t reoccur, so I went back to my work.
I heard her call for me again around 9:30, and there was desperation in her cry. I went in and Jennifer was sobbing. Her headache had returned, but now her entire body ached. I took her temperature and it was close to 103, a serious danger mark. I called her doctor immediately, and we decided to give her some Tylenol to break the fever. Sure enough, around 10:30 the fever broke, and Jen actually got up and did a few chores.
After this, though, she continued to ache all over, especially in her lower back. We decided to make an appointment with an internal medicine doctor, and we went that afternoon around five. She was really hurting when we got to the doctor. She could barely sit in her chair she hurt so badly. Her fever had returned and she began shaking slightly. The doctor told us that Jennifer most likely had the flu.
Around 9:30 that night, Jennifer’s symptoms had progressed to the point that I was extremely concerned. We loaded her up in the car, and my brother and Jennifer’s best friend went with us to the ER. We sat in the waiting room for at least an hour and a half. We took Jen into the waiting room in a wheelchair, and she decided that she wanted to lie on the floor. She half rolled, half fell out of the chair and curled into the fetal position on the floor of the ER. I lay down over her, sobbing again, and I knew then that something was terribly wrong with her.
Finally they moved Jen into the ER, but they wouldn’t let me go back with her. After an hour or so, I was let back to see her, and they told me that they’d given Jen some morphine. This, along with her color, frightened me terribly. Jen’s lips were blue, her face was pasty white, and she looked exhausted. Her eyes were half open, and she couldn’t really speak cognitively. I told her I loved her and held her hand, and finally they moved us to a room to admit us.
It was then that Jen’s vital signs dropped extremely low. It is fairly hazy, but if memory serves she was only absorbing something like 72% of the oxygen she breathed. I’m not a doctor, but I knew enough to be afraid. They told me this was critical and moved us immediately to ICU. From here, things changed. Everyone was moving at a very rapid pace, and Jen and I seemed to slow down. I sat across from her in a chair and stared at her. She couldn’t speak, but she never broke eye-contact with me. I was crying. I knew, somehow, that this was to be the end of our time together. Jen knew also. As I peered into her eyes I tried to smile, trying to reassure her. I’m sure I didn’t pull this off. Jenny, though, smiled her soft, understanding, caring smile and mouthed “I love you, forever” to me. Things are too hazy to remember from here, but her look, compassion, and care for me even in the midst of her struggle is forever burned into my memory. Jenny went into a coma the morning of the 15th. I went in to see her as often as they’d let me, and I leaned over her begging her to stay. But she was tired. I could see she was fighting, but she wasn’t fighting for herself. She wasn’t afraid (the nurses in ICU—almost all of whom went to her funeral—later told me that they’d never seen someone so young so at peace). I knew, then, for whom she fought so desperately. She fought for me. I went to her Friday afternoon, and I leaned over her beautiful frame and said “Go home, Jenny, and save me a seat.” She did.
How does one minister to a young (25 year old) man, now widowed father, in this situation? What can be said? What can be done? I believe that, in large part, grief ministry is actually done before grief—that is, much of the most effective ministry to the grieving is foundational, it is the groundwork which is laid to give proper context and hope for those who grieve. I suggest, here, a few foundations upon which I believe faith may grieve in hope.
1) Remember the incarnation
When I was a kid, I can remember a particular Bible class that rewarded us with candy for memorizing a scripture. We all scrambled for John 11:35. Though we did so for the wrong reason, in some ways it was the perfect verse to memorize. For not only is John 11:35 the shortest verse in the Bible, it is also perhaps the most profound: Jesus wept. It would be difficult to imagine a more full exposition of the incarnation than this. The Word through whom creation came into existence experiencing the most basic and intense human emotion.
In our teachings and preaching and in our practices and life together we should work to incorporate, constantly, this most basic truth of our faith: Christ became flesh and dwelt in our midst.
In some ways, this is what is denied in contemporary “celebration” funeral services. I read a story some time ago that suggested that the sound one is more likely to hear at a funeral today is laughter rather than weeping, as people desire more and more for people to be “happy” about the life of the loved one they’ve lost. There is some good in this, of course, but the church’s traditional liturgy (including funeral liturgy) has provided context for human grief in the worship of the church and the incarnation of her Lord. See my article in JCS 1/3 for a more detailed discussion of the need for funerals for Christians.
Our work, then, prior to the season of grief, is to remind the church that Jesus wept. We remember in our teaching and our worship that we live in a sinful world in which death is a reality, an unwelcome aberration which is overcome in the resurrection, but not destroyed until Christ returns, and in doing so we encourage each other to grieve, to weep not “as those who have no hope,” to weep the tears that Jesus wept.
So much of life in contemporary society denies the reality of death and its accompanying grief. So much of what we do is concerned with distracting ourselves from finitude, and this includes denying the grief of those around us who have lost loved ones. But celebration or denial of death is Gnostic, not Christian. It is a denial of that which is central to the Christian faith: that God became flesh and dwelt among us. When we remind the church—in our songs and prayers and sermons, and especially in the Supper—that the man Jesus was indeed fully human, subject to all the frailties (physical and emotional) of humanity, we give permission to grieve, and we reveal the false “authenticity” of the modern indifference to death.
If we are to give hope to those in grief, we must prepare them with a truly incarnational message, for it is the message of a God who has not left us to our suffering, but who joined us and continues to join us in that suffering, through Jesus Christ.
2) We need to incorporate grieving into the life of the church
I should begin with a qualification here. I am not suggesting that our worship services become melancholy. However, we do need to bring into our corporate worship and times together an element of the human experience of grief.
A significant part of the worship of God’s people throughout the millennia has been lament. Next time you have a chance, flip through your church’s hymnal and take note of the number of songs of lament in it. Note, too, the number of songs your church sings which could be considered lament. Now, flip through the psalms and note the number of laments found therein. Israel’s worship—private and corporate—was replete with “How long” and “Why”. The psalms gather up and offer to God the full experience of humanity, including grief, doubt, and fear.
Though we have the hope of Jesus Christ, our worship should do the same. We should seek to collect the experience of God’s people in our midst and offer it to God in our worship, thus giving context for our members’ grief and corporately finding the hope of God’s presence with them.
This can be done simply by incorporating Psalms into the life and worship of the church. If you’ve not had a chance to see Mark Shipp’s edited Psalter, Timeless: Ancient Psalms of the Church Today, you should avail yourself of this fine contribution to the church’s worship.
In addition, we should encourage our members in grief not to remove themselves from the corporate life of the church. Though everything in our society tries to push the grieving away, we should embrace them as a part of our story. The church needs the experience of those in grief every bit as much as it needs the experience of those who celebrate. We should remind those among us who grieve of this truth.
3) Remember the resurrection
It might seem strange to list this particular truth third. Paul clearly saw this as a great comfort for the Thessalonians who had lost loved ones (1 Thess 4). In my own experience, though, it was a distant thing, a hope only to be fulfilled after a long life of absence, only fulfilled following my own long sleep.
But, the resurrection remains the great hope of the church. We should reclaim the hope of resurrection, though—not of some bodiless existence, not a release from this body, but a raising of this body and its transformation into immortality. The Christian hope is not oblivion or absorption into a great united consciousness, but a resurrection.
Michael Weed pointed out to me, years ago, the fact that Jesus still bore the scars of the crucifixion in his resurrected body (cf. Jesus and Thomas in John 20). Why is this so? I believe it is because the scars tell the story of Jesus’ life. I believe that, as humans, our scars give us character and make us who we are.
And resurrection is God’s promise to remember. A constant cry of the lament psalms is “Remember me!” And the promise of resurrection is that it is the me of me that will live again—changed and sanctified, certainly, but me.
I can remember walking around outside my house after Jennifer died and seeing the trees and hills and wondering how many people those hills and trees had seen buried. Who remembered them? Within a generation of our death, no one will know us. They may know about us, but they won’t know us. We will be forgotten.
But the resurrection, the biblical picture of resurrection, reminds us that even though our frail memories fade, God will not forget, and in his own good time he will raise and restore.
These are, I want to suggest, three key commitments that the church must maintain in order to offer hope to those who grieve. I hope to offer a follow up post shortly with a few suggestions for those who minister to the grieving. But it is my prayer that, if you are grieving, you may find some comfort in the thoughts here. And I pray that church leaders may consider ways in which they may incorporate a constant remembrance of these teachings into their churches.
If you are in grief, please feel free to contact me, any time you need, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach out. You are not alone.
If you haven't read JCS 1/3, with the theme "The Art of Dying," I highly recommend you do so. You can purchase the back issue from our online store.