In my previous post, I suggested some ways that the church can engage in grief ministry before tragedy happens. I remain committed to the idea that most grief ministry is preparatory, but I want to offer some suggestions for ministry at the moment (and throughout the season) of grief. These suggestions are not new, but they are those that I have found helpful both in personal experience and in my ministering to other grievers.
Let me begin by explaining that, as in all of my reflections on grief, I remain deeply indebted to John Mark Hicks, both for his personal ministry in my own life and for his book Yet Will I Trust Him: Understanding God in a Suffering World. Any brilliant thinking in my reflections should be credited to John Mark who was, for me, a master teacher and mentor, both in my grief and in my subsequent thinking about grieving and grief ministry.
Ministry in times of grief
Browsing through Facebook on a Saturday morning you stumble across a post from a member of your congregation. It is a bit incoherent, and incomplete, but you can tell from the post that something traumatic has happened to this person. You read on through the comments and the steady stream of “I’m so sorrys” and heart emojis. Concerned, you call a friend from church to find out what happened. Your friend tells you that this person’s loved ones were in a car accident on their way home from a trip and not expected to survive. Two hours later your friend calls you. The worst has happened, they have not survived, leaving behind a disoriented, broken person just starting down the long, painful road of grief.
What can you do? What should you do?
I’m always amazed at the fact that, after all this time and experience, I still don’t know what to say when someone I know loses a loved one. I have gotten to where I actually say that to them: “I don’t know what to say.” The truth is, I don’t have anything to say at those moments. Everyone is different, and everyone experiences and journeys through grief differently. “I am so utterly broken for you, I don’t know what to say.”
There are a few tips I might offer, though, to church members (and ministers) who are helping a fellow Christian go through grief. I offer these humbly: as I’ve said above, they aren’t new to me, and they don’t constitute a technical solution (i.e., “if you just do these 5 steps you’ll do it right”). They are things I’ve found helpful, and that I believe in most situations will provide a modicum of comfort to those who grieve.
1) Be Present and Listen
As I noted in the previous post, to stand with those who grieve is to stand on holy ground. But this does not mean that we should avoid being present. It is holy, but it is our calling to be there. Silent and listening (and non-judgmental) presence is the most powerful and best response to suffering. Always remember that Job’s friends did exactly the right thing… Until they spoke.
Jeffry Zurheide, in his book When Faith is Tested: Pastoral Responses to Suffering and Tragic Death, tells the story of a young boy crying out to his father late at night. The boy explained that he had become frightened because it was dark and he was alone. “But Jesus is always with you,” the father said. “I know, but I needed someone with skin on,” replied the boy. There is an “aloneness” in grief. Everything in our culture pushes grievers to the margins: grief is uncomfortable, it reminds us of our own finitude and vulnerability. We say “if you need me, call me,” but this is often a way for us to shield ourselves from the pain of being present. The first order of business then is to practice the incarnation. Be present. Don’t leave them to their grief alone.
Remember, too, that grief is an all encompassing thing. For ministers, this can be especially important. People who have lost are often disoriented and may quickly lose control of important tasks: there are arrangements to be made, procedural things that must be done (sending death certificates to creditors, and the like), mundane tasks that can overwhelm in the sea of grief. Help with these. Don’t offer, don’t say “if you need me to help with these, call me.” Knock and the door and say “Let’s go through your files together, we’re going to take this load off your shoulders today.”
Several people come to mind when thinking this through in my own experience. The first is David Worley, who was the president of Austin Grad (then ICS) when I was a student. David came to the hospital on June 15th, and as far as I know he just never left. He was always there, grieving with me, praying, being present. He was a rich blessing.
My uncles, Don Hall and Ron Fulton, handled every arrangement for people coming in from out of town, and assisted greatly in countless tasks that I wasn’t competent to perform. I never would have survived without them.
The entire faculty at Austin Grad was immeasurably helpful. Mark Shipp preached Jennifer’s funeral and grieved with me. I spent countless hours in Michael Weed’s office as he graciously offered his time to listen to questions to which there are no answers. We wept together. I wouldn’t have remained faithful if not for Michael’s attentive care for me.
The most powerful example of what ministry to the grieving looks like on the ground I found in a fellow griever. Shortly after Jennifer died I came across John Mark Hicks’ book (mentioned above) and devoured it. I’m not sure what motivated me, but I searched and found his email address online and emailed him about what I was going through. John Mark emailed me back almost immediately: “I’m going to be speaking in a town near you next weekend. Can you come?” My dad and I loaded up in the car and drove to meet with John Mark.
I’ll never forget that meeting. I’d never met John Mark before, and didn’t know what he looked like. We told each other what we would be driving and met in a parking lot at a fast food place. I remember getting out of the car and looking nervously at a man approaching us. “Todd?” he asked me. “John Mark,” I responded, and stuck out my hand to shake his. John Mark walked right through my outstretched hand and wrapped his arms around me. I buried my face in his shoulder and wept. When I recovered, we went inside the restaurant and sat at a table, and John Mark spoke. But the words he spoke were important, and suggesting these words is the most important advice I could offer to anyone in grief ministry. John Mark said, “Tell me your story,” and for the next hour I spoke. John Mark was, for me, Jesus with skin on.
2) Let them grieve.
Again, everything around us wants grief to go away. We develop quick fixes and we often rush people through grief. “They should be over this by now,” we say. But grief, I believe, is directly tied to love. We love deeply, and when we lose we grieve deeply. There is no way to rush through grief. In truth, there is no “getting over” loss. There is living again, but one does not stop grieving.
I also suggest, then, that we avoid any idea of “fixing” those who grieve. Many of us (if not all of us) are familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross work that suggests five stages experienced in loss. The problem is, we are usually just familiar enough with it to be dangerous. Popular readings of the work have turned the stages Kübler-Ross suggested into a “process,” a technical solution to grief. We expect people to progress through the stages of denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance, and then be done with it all.
But grief isn’t a process. It’s not even “cyclical.” It is organic and unpredictable. One might experience the five stages in one day, even in one hour, only to have them repeat in a different order. We must let those who grieve experience their grief fully and without judgment or expectation. I try to tell folks who come to me to talk about their grief to simply allow themselves to feel what they feel, to lean into the waves of grief as it comes and not to judge themselves for it. If they are having a good day, there’s nothing wrong with it; and it is the same on the bad days.
The church is the right place for the grieving. Our story and our worship gives context to grief, and, if we allow space for grieving during our times of corporate worship (as I suggested in the previous post), we invite those in grief into our shared life and offer them hope and support and comfort. Let them grieve.
3) Remember the one who has gone
Often at the heart of our lack of comfort in the presence of those who grieve is a concern not to offend, which is admirable. We often avoid mentioning the loss, or we stumble over our words when recalling a memory of the person who is gone. We don’t want to do damage, to bring up the pain of loss again, and so we avoid mentioning them and we talk around the grief.
But, in most instances, I believe, this is precisely the wrong thing to do. If we live our lives as if the deceased never was, we subtly send the message to those in grief that they—the lost—didn’t matter to us. Remember their loved one. Call them by name. Giggle at the funny memories; weep, deeply at the loss. Allow yourself to grieve with those who grieve, and in this way enter into their grief and remind them that their loved one was someone important, that they are not alone in their feeling of loss.
Those in the midst of grief understand that “life goes on,” around them. But remember that they are staring at the shattered pieces of a broken life that once was and will not be again, this side of the resurrection. They must put together some semblance of “living,” first, and only then, after much time and many tears, may they rebuild a “life.”
So pause with them, especially on those special occasions. Take a moment at Christmas, on anniversaries and birthdays, and send them a card and call them. Remind them that they and their loved one matter to you. And call their loved one by name, don’t talk around them. Remind them of how much you miss them, as well. Step into their grief with them in this way.
And we should do this corporately as well. One way, I think, to address this as a congregation is to incorporate memorial services into the life of the church, say at Easter. We should call the names of those we’ve lost over the last year. We should read Hebrews 11 and 12 and call to mind those from our midst who have joined that “great cloud of witnesses.” We should remember, together, the blessing they have been—and continue to be—to our congregations. In this way we offer great hope to those who have lost, remembering that their loved one was important to others as well, and important to the life of faith of this body of believers.
Ultimately, grief is a mystery which should be approached with fear and trembling. It is a profound moment of human experience. The church needs those who grieve; we need the scars they bear in order to give the body of Christ great character. We need the reminder of the hope that we have in the “God who raises the dead.”
Our culture is uncomfortable with those in grief. It shuffles them to the side, out of the sight of day to day life. The church cannot be the same. We must incorporate those who grieve fully into the life of our churches, and we must weave that grief into the fabric of the story of God. Only a church that does this may pray “Marana, Tha!” “Lord, Come!”