the shape of leadership

Ministry to the Grieving

No one should have to navigate bereavement alone

Mary Beth Woll on August 30, 2021

Grieving people travel a different journey than the rest of the congregation. And on this difficult path, they need special care and consideration.

Two years ago I lost my husband, Bob, an Assemblies of God minister. After nearly 39 years of marriage and 20 years of shared ministry, Bob received a devastating diagnosis. Three months later, he was gone — and I was shattered.

I had been a therapist for 14 years. I had counseled many clients through grief. But when it was my turn, grief felt more excruciating than I ever imagined and lasted much longer than I thought I could bear.

Thankfully, I did have an important lifeline: my church, family and friends. Many others do not have this support. Though pastors want to help, many are not trained to care for those who are walking through their personal valley of the shadow of death.

The Grief Process

When someone dies, those left behind may experience the five classic stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — though the process seldom happens in a neat and orderly fashion.

In GriefWork, Fran Zamore and Ester R.A. Leutenberg describe a three-stage grief journey: shock, disorganization, and reorganization.

However grief manifests, mourners need commensurate levels of support from their communities. Church leaders cannot do it all — nor should they try. Yet pastoral care is critical to the recovery of the wounded.

What Not to Do

Don’t fail to be there. Grief is raw, painful and messy. Mourners may initially feel numb. But as reality settles in, every emotion will take on a heightened intensity, even as coping abilities decline under the strain.

As a result, grieving people are exquisitely sensitive and will always remember how others responded to them during this time. They will be forever grateful for their pastor’s loving care — or hurt by the lack of it.

Don’t minimize the loss. People who aren’t sure what to say often resort to clichés: “At least he’s no longer suffering.” “She is in a better place.” “At least you have other children.” “You can always marry, again.”

Such words are not only unhelpful, but they can also leave grieving people feeling isolated in their distress. Even faith-based platitudes — such as, “Trust God” — may come across as dismissive of the deep anguish the person is feeling.

Almost 40 years ago, my dear friend suddenly lost her fiance to a heart attack. He was only in his 20s and was the only child of a widow. My friend sat in terrible shock as a parade of people from church came to comfort her and the young man’s mother. I was astonished when one prominent church lady walked in, loudly clapped her hands, and exclaimed, “Well, praise the Lord!”

My friend jumped up and ran from the room, wailing, “I wanted a wedding, not a funeral!”

The grieving mother remained, patiently enduring the inappropriate response of this misguided visitor. It was excruciating to witness.

The Bible says there is a time to weep and mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Trying to put a happy spin on a devastating loss is not the way to help people cope with their reality. Instead, we need to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). That requires empathy. Sometimes the best response is to weep with people in their sorrow, as Jesus did with Mary and Martha (John 11:35).

Jesus promised special blessing and comfort for those who mourn.

Don’t forget. After the memorial, grieving people often feel alone, forgotten and invisible in their pain. While others return to their routines, those who are closest to the loss will be anything but normal for at least the next two years. They will need ongoing support as they begin to reorganize their lives and rediscover their purpose as individuals.

What to Do

Do show up. James 1:27 says the Church should “look after orphans and widows in their distress.” This requires time and presence.

In my ministry, I am in contact with approximately 100 widows and widowers every week. I recently asked some of them, “What you would like every pastor to know about caring for people in your situation?”

Their most frequent reply was, “Be there!”

Many pastors want to be there but struggle to find the time. Nevertheless, time is exactly what grieving parishioners need. Make it a ministry priority, and put it on the schedule at regular intervals.

A pastor friend of mine uses this strategy for ministering to the bereaved in his care:

  • Call immediately.
  • Make an appointment to meet as soon as possible.
  • Try to visit in person every day for three weeks. If in-person interaction is not possible, call or text to ask how they are doing. Don’t miss a day.
  • After the third week, contact them weekly — no matter how long it takes — until they indicate they are at peace.

Do acknowledge the pain. Reassure the bereaved that what they are feeling is understandable. It is OK to feel sad, overwhelmed, confused or angry. Sorrow doesn’t offend God. In fact, Jesus promised special blessing and comfort for those who mourn (Matthew 5:4).

The pain is real, and the journey toward acceptance can be long and hard. Give people all the time and emotional space they need.

Do remember. Grieving people naturally want to know their deceased loved ones will not be forgotten. Find ways to honor their memory. Share and listen to stories. Ask to see a wedding album or family photos. Recognize anniversaries and other important dates.

Next Steps

Sometimes people need the guidance of a professional to work through their grief. Recognize when a parishioner’s needs exceed pastoral counseling, and refer him or her to a Christian therapist or psychiatrist.

Don’t be afraid to ask critical questions. The bereaved are vulnerable to depression and suicidal thoughts. It is normal for grieving people to miss their loved ones and want to be with them in heaven. But if they express suicidal ideation, help them get immediate mental health care. As a mandated reporter, don’t hesitate to call 911.

Consider starting a grief support group in your church. Partner with a parachurch organization, such as The Widows Project or GriefShare, that specializes in long-term grief ministry.

The devastation of bereavement is a crisis no one should have to navigate alone. People need support as they try to build a new life without their loved one.

Grief is a process that will take its own course. It is best not to fight it. But the more resources one brings to the grief process, the sooner healing will come. The bereaved need a combination of pastoral care, family, friends, parachurch ministries, and professionals to help guide them into the new life God has for them.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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