Being the church means navigating loss as a community
By James Bergen
Editor's Note: The on-line version of this article includes some sections not included in the print version.
There is no easy way to navigate grief. In our heads we know death is a natural part of life. However, when loss and grief invade our lives it seems anything but natural. Our life comes to an awkward standstill while everyone and everything else just keeps moving on.
We grieve as individuals, but we rarely grieve alone. Death is part of being and doing church together. How can the church come together to be a helpful and healing place for individuals, families and the whole congregation to experience and navigate the journey through loss and grief?
Here are some of the things I am learning through the successes and failures of shepherding individuals, families and a congregation. I have solicited much feedback from those who have walked this road. Their feedback has been especially candid and insightful. As a church family these are some of the things we have experienced, some of the things we are learning, and how we have grown and changed through experiencing God in the midst of difficult times.
Phase 1: Preparing for loss and grief
One of the best ways to walk through grief is to have a depth of relationship before death or loss comes your way. A congregation that spends time together, likes being together and worships, fellowships, eats and plays together is setting itself up well to successfully grieve.
Loss of a loved one often starts well before they are gone. Some die suddenly and without any advanced warning, but many are given a diagnosis and wrestle with illness for weeks, months or even years. Anticipatory grief or pre-grieving often happens during this time.
Support for the ill and the family is important during this time. Prayers, cards, conversations and practical help are all welcome. I know some friends who came over and planted favorite flowers for one woman who was in the last weeks of hospice care in her home.
A couple of years ago members of our church responded to what seemed like a growing number of people diagnosed with chronic or terminal illness by forming Assurance, a support group for individuals with these illnesses, family members and also survivors. It has been a vibrant and life-giving place within our faith community. It has been a place of witness and outreach as some from the surrounding community have joined. However, the reality of the fragile nature of the group is always present. One of the founding members has already passed, and the group has said farewell to others too.
Creating a culture where the church body cares for itself rather than leaving it to the pastor or trained caregiver is a helpful aspect of being the church. This should be a natural outflow of being Christian, but structuring the ministry can also be helpful.
Members of our church have developed a Congregational Care Team which prays regularly for all those who are ill, follows up on those who cannot attend services, goes to hospitals to pray with people before and after surgery and visits those in care homes. Some churches have deacons who fulfill this ministry. A blend of organic and structured caregiving is helpful, and even then I still find some people’s needs going unnoticed. It takes an attentive and responsive congregation to really be in tune with each other’s needs and follow up accordingly.
Our congregation has been hit hard recently with unexpected deaths, a number of them at age 50 and under. This has been a wake-up call for many to have their end-of-life issues taken care of: practical things like life insurance and a will or living trust. Physical things too—many that haven’t been to the doctor in years have gone in for a checkup. There are relational and spiritual implications as well—am I in right relationship with God and with others? Am I living with any regrets? Is there anything I can do to restore relationships?
Do your ‘theologizing’ beforehand
Having your theology on death and dying in place before you are personally surrounded by it is very helpful. Scripture has much to say on the topic. God’s Word is very meaningful in the midst of grief. 1 Thessalonians 4 tells us that as followers of Jesus we are people who grieve, but not as those who do not have hope.
The reality of that verse is very true and helpful as a community experiences and encounters grief. However, we may not always feel hopeful in the midst of our grief. The last thing we need is someone telling us we should. Expecting those who are grieving to feel or think a certain way is not realistic or fair. Maybe it is at that point where the body exercises her role in doing the hoping, believing, praying and trusting on behalf of those who presently cannot.
Phase 2: When death strikes
The “week from hell”
Most death to burial timelines happen in about one week, give or take. That week is one of the worst weeks someone can experience. It is not necessarily that the grief is more intense—though it could be for some—but that a person is in shock, emotions are raw, 100 decisions need to be made, sleep is little, people are everywhere, family dynamics are magnified, they are overwhelmed and often it seems like there is virtually no time or space to grieve because of everything else going on.
Practical help is especially meaningful during this week. Make a meal for the family. Bring goodies and finger foods for the many people who may be visiting during that week. Pick children up from school or help with childcare issues. Wash a load of shirts or blouses and do the ironing. Loan a car to be used by family from out of town. People need to be encouraged to help however they feel led.Genuine expressions of compassion do more good than harm.Money might be an issue. Contributing to the funeral expenses may be a huge blessing. It is helpful if some of these details (like meals and finances) are organized through the church.
Cards and other remembrances acknowledging the loss are also meaningful. They allow others to connect in some way and for the family to know they are being thought of and prayed for. The power of a praying church is especially important during this time and possibly the single most important tool we have to help during grief.
A pastor or skilled caregiver being present at the funeral home and helping make decisions about the memorial service and other relevant end-of-life decisions is also often helpful. While living, some people write down some of their thoughts of what they would want in their service. This is very helpful for the family and the officiating pastor. The memorial service really is for those who are living, but usually the family feels best if they know they are honoring the desires and character of the one who has passed.
The ministry of presence
It is hard to know how to respond and what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one. Many who gave feedback about their personal experience say they have been wounded by the words of others during this time. Interestingly, it has been pastors, “experts” and conference leaders who topped the list as least helpful in a verbal sense. I think that is because we feel we have to say something profound or helpful at that moment.
Often being present is the most significant ministry, more than the words you speak. Be present, offer condolences, give a hug, pray. Attend the memorial service. Visit their home and only for a brief time. While potentially awkward, acknowledging the loss is important. However, offering commentary, answers or glib remarks about hope or afterlife ring hollow and can sting. Avoid the temptation of using your words to make things better. Your presence and your shared grief are best at this point of the process.
The gift of story
One of the best gifts a family and a congregation can share during this time is that of story. Telling stories creates a shared experience. Many family members are extremely touched by hearing how their loved one impacted the life of someone else. Sometimes the memorial service or reception offer open mic times where these stories can be shared verbally. Regardless, writing the story down and sharing it with the family is extremely valuable.
Sharing your grief, without dumping it on them, can also be helpful. However, don’t show concern for someone else and then use the conversation to process your own grief. One of our members who recently lost his spouse said, “I received the blessing that my grief and loss of my wife was also being experienced byNFC. That shared grief has been great comfort to me.”
Phase 3: Moving beyond loss and grief
There may be some wrong ways to grieve (e.g. self-medicating to relieve the pain) but there is no one right way. Individuals are different. Give people space to walk through their grief. Putting a timeline on someone else’s grief is not helpful or right. And just because you have experienced loss yourself does not mean someone else will experience it in the same way.
Minister out of your experience but don’t project it on them. Avoid judging another family if they lost their child five years ago and are still struggling in the grief process. Poll five people and you will probably get five different opinions on the right amount of time before someone can remarry. A helpful and healing community is one that offers each other time and space to move through the many aspects of grief with much grace and by being present to support. There are usually many good and bad days over the months and maybe even years after the loss occurs.
Give space, but stay connected
Staying connected without smothering the individual or family is important. Often coming back to worship services is extremely difficult. The music and environment are often very raw and evoke much emotion. People also feel very conspicuous because of the recent public awareness of the events in their family. They may wish to be more ‘anonymous’ at first—coming in late and leaving early.
This is also a critical time for some, especially those on the margins of the congregation. If too much time goes by without connection with the church they can easily fall away from the faith community. Be on the lookout for these individuals while being careful of the weekly “Where were you last Sunday?” phone calls. Some find continuing to serve in a place of ministry a very positive aspect of walking through their grief. Contributing to and investing in someone else can be a very good outlet and therapy for grief.
The person is more than their loss
The loss is a significant part of the person’s experience but is not all there is to that person. Knowing the other aspects of someone’s life and relating to them on personal, professional and relational aspects is welcome. The ongoing “How are you doing?” question is not helpful. It continues to focus on that one aspect of the person’s life and is difficult if not impossible to answer. Don’t pretend the loss didn’t happen, but also don’t let it become the only focus of attention and interest in that person’s life.
There is much to learn in this whole area of walking through grief together. Depth of relationship before crisis hits, practical support during the crisis and long-term support afterward are all helpful. We are learning from our “successes” and “failures” in this area. Sometimes we learn that no one called, made meals or followed up. That hurts.
Ask people in your congregation: “What has the church done that has been helpful in your grief process? What hasn’t been helpful?” Their answers can make for a very eye-opening and empowering conversation. Hopefully they will have some encouraging things to say about how they have experienced God through their church community. And hopefully we can learn from our failures in becoming a more helpful and healing community.
James Bergen is the senior pastor at North Fresno MB Church, Fresno, Calif. The congregation provided much foeedback in forming this article.