Loss is an unavoidable part of life. In hopes of resourcing people living with the pain of loss, a contingent of Mennonite Brethren churches are using GriefShare.
The 13-week GriefShare curriculum is designed for people grieving the death of a loved one and includes video seminars featuring experts on grief and recovery and a workbook for personal study. Groups meet weekly for discussion under the care of a local facilitator.
“GriefShare is like a three-legged stool,” says Velma Goertzen, GriefShare facilitator at Buhler (Kan.) MB Church. “First we watch and listen to others who have gone through grief through a video, then we talk to each other, then we take the workbook home and we talk to God. Those three steps are very important.”
Grief is a journey
Tim Schellenberg, GriefShare facilitator and visitation pastor at Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan., says the material is accessible for believers and non-believers.
“For people who are not in the church, they need to know that this is a Christian thing—because there are one or two lessons that deal quite a bit about coming to faith, trusting in Jesus,” Schellenberg says. “But I can say, when you’ve had a significant loss, people do reflect on their faith.
“To ignore the spiritual part is not a good thing, but I would be afraid of a program that would push it too hard,” he says. “I think GriefShare does a good balance of that.”
Jenny Akina, facilitator at North Fresno (Calif.) Church, says she appreciates how the GriefShare material is presented.
“It’s very structured, and I really like that about it,” she says. “It’s not just sitting around talking about how sad everybody is. Because we could all do that. It’s focused on a journey, on moving forward, but being very aware that this is all a normal process.
“We think that as Christians, sometimes, we should have it all together, and we shouldn’t be so sad, but the Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says that we still grieve, but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope,” Akina says.
GriefShare provides a training video for volunteers who lead local groups. While not a requirement for leadership, many facilitators have experienced and dealt with grief themselves.
Akina went through GriefShare twice as a participant, then twice as a helper before facilitating a group at North Fresno.
“I really don’t know how anybody could lead GriefShare without having suffered a loss,” she says. “I would have a hard time going to a GriefShare group with someone who couldn’t really relate on that level.”
Matt Harder, pastor of care and counseling at Reedley (Calif.) MB Church, oversees his congregation’s GriefShare facilitators, selecting leaders who are dealing with grief in a healthy way. He says he chooses multiple facilitators to avoid burnout or an emotional burden.
Goertzen, who has facilitated GriefShare at Buhler MB twice a year since 2010, says it’s important for facilitators to process their own grief before leading a group.
“They strongly suggest that (facilitators) are at least two years past their own personal grief,” she says. “I see the mistake sometimes when someone has lost a husband, and nine months later, they’re facilitating, and they haven’t gone through their own grief journey yet. Then sometimes that group will stumble.”
Goertzen encourages potential leaders to attend a GriefShare session at another church to use as a model, to ask others in the church to pray during GriefShare sessions and to ask questions of other churches with GriefShare programs or via the GriefShare website’s forum.
Parkview’s Schellenberg encourages facilitators to foster discussion, since the one-way communication of the video can make the material more difficult to process.
Scheduling and holidays
Some churches have found it helpful to schedule GriefShare at specific times of year. Holidays and anniversaries can be especially hard for those living with grief. The one-session video and workbook, “Surviving the Holidays,” is an additional resource.
Buhler MB offers GriefShare twice a year in September and March.
“The one in September ends with the ‘Surviving the Holidays’ in November, and that’s a good way to end a 13-week session,” Goertzen says. “The one in March, you’ve had Christmas and you think, ‘I’ve got this handled,’ and then everything comes crashing down again and you feel like you need support.”
Reedley MB hosts GriefShare groups three times a year: in the fall, spring and early summer either during Wednesday night activities to allow parents to attend without arranging childcare or in the morning for people who want to stay home at night.
At Mountain View Community Church in Fresno, Calif., GriefShare sessions ended Dec. 11, 2017, and facilitator Joel Vogt says that felt too close to the holidays.
Group size is another consideration, as numbers are a factor in engagement. Many churches open GriefShare sessions to the community; others limit the invitation to their own congregations. While there was some variance of opinion, most facilitators suggest groups of four to eight people, with an upper cap of 10 or 12.
When to begin attending GriefShare
Akina recommends waiting at least three months following a loss before attending GriefShare.
Facilitators say the first few sessions of GriefShare may be especially difficult for those experiencing grief. Most agreed people should attend a minimum of three.
“If you attend just one, it’s overwhelming because you’re hearing others’ grief, and that’s painful, too,” Goertzen says. “But if you attend three sessions, and you follow the flow, then you start making friends in the group and you start seeing the benefits.”
Vogt encourages people to be deliberate in dealing with grief.
“You need to be brave,” he says. “You need to be intentional because if you hide from your grief, it’s just going to get worse.”
Harder echoes the sentiment: “You need to deal with it because if you don’t, it’s like an infection in your body. If you don’t clean out that infection, it’s just going to keep festering. You won’t heal. GriefShare has a way of enabling you to be able to heal from those things.”
Benefits are evident
Whether a church has hosted GriefShare once or for many years, facilitators say the benefits are evident.
Pastor Duane Deckert is the GriefShare facilitator at Bible Fellowship Church in Minot, N.D., where the church has hosted GriefShare the past two years.
“(The video) helps people identify that they aren’t the only ones feeling the way they’re feeling and going through what they’re going through,” Deckert says. “The videos do a great job of opening people up to their own grief and how to work through it.”
Goertzen says she’s received many positive responses, adding that two people have placed their faith in Jesus through the sessions.
“A lot of people say they couldn’t have gone through the grief process without it,” she says. “There’s as many different stories as there are people.”
Vogt brought GriefShare to Mountain View after going through it himself and realizing it was a valuable resource.
“In the beginning sessions, of course, everyone’s hesitant and shy, and some are emotional,” Vogt says. “As the weeks go by, these walls start to come down, and people start sharing on a personal level.
“I believe it’s very worthwhile because the worst thing a person can do is to get stuck in their grief,” Vogt says. “(GriefShare) doesn’t cure anything, but it helps you on your path towards recovery.”
To read what advice USMB GriefShare facilitators have for talking with a grieving friend, read this companion article.
To learn more about GriefShare or to find a group, visit www.griefshare.org.