by Victor M. Parachi
It was January 2001, the beginning of a new year, but I dreaded getting out of my cave, the name I applied to my bedroom. It had been two months since my 23-year-old daughter was killed in an accident. Though a new year was emerging, there was no sign my pain was departing.
I prayed, stood by her bedside, held her small hand, stayed up all night, and refused to give up on her, yet she died. My baby died only 29 days after her birth. For me there would be no first word, no first step, no first tooth, no first anything.
My husband of 23 years was the epitome of health so I was not only surprised but shocked when he died of an aneurism at work. It’s been four months now, but it feels like four long, slow years. The pain of loss is almost unbearable on many days. How long can this go on for me?
Every year 2.4 million Americans die, leaving behind many millions more who grieve. A death can generate bitter questioning, deep anxiety, great stress, and acute pain. It is a time when one’s faith can be destroyed or deepened. For people to experience healthy grief recovery and regain the joy of living, it is vital they receive support.
A faith community has the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical resources to be most helpful. In fact, after a death, the first call usually is to a funeral home, and the second is to a house of worship. Here are ways churches—their spiritual leaders and members—can help people through one of life’s most challenging times, the death of a loved one.
Be a faith community with a tender heart. The Bible tells people of faith to remain connected to those who face triumphs and tragedies. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). This means truly feeling what another person feels and conveying sympathy, empathy, and compassion.
As basic as this sounds, faith communities sometimes fail to do it. Minister Doug Manning, author of Comforting Those Who Grieve (Harper Collins, 1987), tells of the time a couple offered to drive him to the airport after a retreat. As he rode with them, he learned they had twin daughters, one of whom had committed suicide. She was a college graduate about to begin her professional life, the parents explained.
As Manning prepared to offer a comforting word, he was caught off guard when “the first thing they wanted to talk about was the failure of their church and their pastor in helping them with their grief.” Adding to their already heavy burden was the fact that “no one said anything to them about their grief since the funeral.” People were avoiding them and, if that wasn’t possible, very carefully steering the conversation away from the death.
No one would mention their daughter’s name. The parents felt as if the rest of the world wanted their daughter forgotten forever.
We must be certain we’re building a culture in our churches that beats in tune with those whose hearts are breaking.
Offer the gift of presence. Roger F. Miller, a pastor and author of What Can I Say? How to Talk to People in Grief (Chalice Press, 1987), says, “The gift of presence is perhaps the most important element in helping people in grief.” Miller encourages church leaders and faith community members to be present when there has been a death. “To be willing to venture out of safe territory onto the dangerous emotional turf of another’s bereavement demonstrates a very special kind of caring. That caring is strengthening influence in and of itself,” he writes.
By making yourself available, you are effectively telling a person fresh with grief, “I am willing to give you myself—my feelings, my patience, my strength, and anything else I have so that together we can work through this time. I am willing to share your pain; to walk this hard road with you and face whatever perils your problems present to me.”
That eloquent statement is made just by being there. So the first, logical step in helping is simply to be there. That is what Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).
Recommend the healing power of a funeral service. An increasing number of families opt for direct cremation, often without any kind of memorial service. Though this pattern fits our death-denying culture, there are dangers when there is not some kind of formal memorialization of the deceased.
Bereaved families who lean in this direction ought to be gently reminded that a memorial service is much more than merely a final disposition of the body.
Therese Rando, a leading authority on grief, notes there are many psychological and sociological benefits from having a funeral service. In her book, Grief, Dying, and Death (Research Press, 1984), she says funerals: confirm and reinforce the reality of the death; assist in the acknowledgment and expression of feelings of loss; stimulate recollection about the deceased; assist mourners in beginning to accommodate the changed relationship between themselves and the deceased’s love one; and allow for input from the community, which serves as a living memorial to the deceased and helps mourners form an integrated image of the deceased.
A responsible grief ministry should make these healing, therapeutic benefits known to those who suffer the death of a loved one.
Get practical. Churches have tremendous resources for offering practical assistance to those who have lost a loved one, such as providing food, yard work, child care, and picking up visitors at the airport.
Betty Hassler, an editor with Lifeway Christian Resources who often advises churches on grief ministry, says: “Practical needs also must be met. With their (grievers’) permission, of course, do something like mow the yard or wash a load of laundry. You might even need to help the survivor get appropriate clothing for the funeral.” House sitting during the funeral is something that also can be offered, she says.
Needs will change in the days and weeks following the funeral, Hassler notes. “A widow might need to learn how to handle the household business. A widower might need to learn how to do the laundry.”
Organize an ongoing grief ministry. If your church is a large one with many members and ample resources, you can do this alone. However, if your church is smaller, consider banding together with other congregations to organize a formal, ongoing grief ministry.
An inspiring example is that of Lutheran churches in Los Angeles County. Ten churches formed an exploratory committee made up of 30 people. The committee met over several months to design a ministry program to meet the needs of bereaved people. The program, called the Grief Ministry Project, currently works with 60 churches and serves approximately 3,000 people each year.
Its leaders have identified five goals:
1. Help persons who have experienced loss and grief to deal constructively with their feelings and other practical problems.
2. Help persons who have lost their spouse or family member grow in understanding and coping with their total life situation and network of relationships.
3. Help Christians who experience loss to find strength, healing, and hope in their faith.
4. Provide the opportunity to reach out to others who are experiencing loss and facing similar struggles and grief.
5. Help those who are experiencing grief to restore and build a sense of purpose for the future.
The Grief Ministry Project provides additional services such as grief workshops, support groups, and professional counseling. The program welcomes anyone experiencing grief due to loss of a spouse from death or divorce.
With so many dying every year, clearly there is a need for grief ministry in the church. If people of faith are willing and available, God can use them to help heal the hurt. In the presence of grief, they can offer “the word that sustains the weary” (Isaiah 50:4).
Victor M. Parachin is an author and freelance journalist writing from Tulsa, Oklahoma.